Iowa State University announced Thursday that it is leaving the Association of American Universities.
The news revived a debate over the AAU’s membership criteria.
“While the university’s core values have not changed since joining the association in 1958, the indicators used by AAU to rank its members have begun to favor institutions with medical schools and associated medical research funding,” said an Iowa State statement on its departure. (University leaders said they made the decision to withdraw.)
The AAU is an organization of 65 research universities (two are Canadian). A majority are public. AAU is invitation only, and most of its meetings are private.
Iowa State is still a member of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, which lobbies on behalf of many of the same issues as AAU does. APLU, however, consists only of public institutions and doesn’t have the pull that comes from having the Ivy League and Stanford University as members. A spokesman for APLU said only that Iowa State was a member in good standing. All the public American universities in the AAU are also members of APLU.
The AAU said it does not comment on its membership rules except to provide some information about how members are selected.
“The association maintains a standing Membership Committee, which periodically evaluates both non-member universities for possible membership and current members for continued membership, with the goal of ensuring that the association in fact comprises comparable leading research-intensive universities,” said the AAU. “Non-member universities whose research and education profile exceeds that of a number of current members may be invited to join the association; current members whose research and education profile falls significantly below that of other current members or below the criteria for admission of new members will be subject to further review and possible discontinuation of membership.”
There is no limit on members, but the AAU “values remaining a relatively small organization,” the association said.
There is a two-stage process by which AAU members and potential members are reviewed. In the first phase, research is judged by (among other measures) competitive, federally funded research. That excludes most Agriculture Department research, because it is awarded through formulas, not through competition.
In the second phase of the process, AAU does consider agriculture funds, along with funds from states and industry.
The AAU’s policy on agricultural research has been controversial in the past. In 2011, the AAU kicked out the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Nebraska officials said at the time that their land-grant mission was not respected by the AAU. At the time, Syracuse University left the AAU voluntarily. When Nebraska left, it was the first to force a vote. Clark University left the AAU in 1999, and the Catholic University of America left in 2002, with both saying that they were leaving voluntarily because their missions no longer aligned with the AAU’s focus on research (although there was much speculation that they had been pushed).
Iowa State’s statement said the university wasn’t abandoning research but noted that its strength is not in biomedical research.
“This year, the National Institutes of Health alone will provide more than $40 billion in medical research funding, compared to $14.7 billion in 1990. The dramatic rate of increase in NIH funding over the last 30 years has far outpaced that of the USDA or National Science Foundation,” Iowa State said.
The university said that it rates in the top 2 percent of universities receiving support from the Department of Agriculture, the top 4 percent from the Department of Energy and the top 9 percent from the NSF. In federal funding per discipline, it is in the top 2 percent for mathematics and statistics research and the top 7 percent for engineering research.
But the university does not rank in NIH grants, which is not surprising, because it doesn’t have a medical school. (The state of Iowa’s sole public medical school is located at the University of Iowa, which remains a member of AAU.) Not having a medical school was also seen as crucial to the decision on the University of Nebraska. That state’s public medical school is located in Omaha. As such, it is part of the University of Nebraska system but not the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
“Iowa State has always been and will continue to be a renowned research university,” said a statement from President Wendy Wintersteen. “Ultimately, our efforts are measured by the success of our students, the innovation of our faculty, and our service to Iowa and the world. These metrics are not exclusive to any one institution or group of institutions.”