I have some disconcerting news. The membership of the Association of American Universities has voted to discontinue Nebraska's membership in that organization. We have known we were at risk of this for ten years, and successfully fought off a similar threat in 2000. I had hoped our extraordinary accomplishments and steep trajectory would have made us less vulnerable, but the AAU's approach to the review made this result inevitable. There was really nothing more you could have accomplished to forestall this result.
Here is what happened.
The AAU has a unique ranking system that ranks all research universities (including non-AAU schools). It consists of four criteria: research expenditures, National Academy members, faculty awards (from a specified list), and citations. An institution's productivity on each of these criteria is “normalized” by the number of tenure track faculty. Each institution is then ranked in accordance with these “normalized” criteria and the average ranking is the overall ranking for each institution. In accordance with this system, we were ranked last among AAU institutions. A number of non-AAU institutions received a higher rank than UNL and a higher rank than 14 other AAU institutions.
The ranking system put us at a disadvantage because of the way NU's system is organized with separate flagship and medical campuses. A large majority of AAU institutions have medical schools and are allowed to count medical research data. With UNMC's research included we would have had research expenditures above many other AAU institutions. Medical schools are both research intensive and also have a high ratio of research per tenure track faculty because many of their faculty who produce research are not “tenure track faculty” and thus not counted. Thus having a medical school is a disproportionate advantage in the AAU rankings that UNL did not enjoy.
The second disadvantage we face is that AAU inappropriately devalues agricultural research. It does not count any research funded by USDA (or by any private-sector interest) in the overall ranking. However, it does count agricultural faculty in the number used to normalize the rankings. The result is the ranking counts agriculture faculty but not the research they produce. Because of our strong commitment as a land-grant institution to serving the State of Nebraska, we are seriously disadvantaged within the AAU ranking system.
A third disadvantage we face is that we are a comprehensive university. Although the AAU purports to limit membership to “comprehensive” institutions, the normalization process favors those institutions narrowly focused on disciplines qualified for federal research dollars. In fact our total research expenditure is higher than two prominent, but highly specialized institutions.
We presented a data-based argument that demonstrated the specific ways that the ranking metrics distorted UNL's actual research accomplishments, but our argument did not prevail. The AAU Membership Policies, however, provide that when an institution is reviewed the review committee should engage in a second-stage process to make a “qualitative judgment about the mission, characteristics, and trajectory” of the institution.
I believe we had a strong case on the “second stage.” Among AAU institutions we have had the 7th largest percentage growth in research expenditures over the last decade. We have leadership or partnership roles in research with all of the highest ranked AAU institutions. We have faculty achievements that are not counted by AAU but are of equal merit. For example, no credit is given to a faculty who claims a Poet Laureate of the United States or the winner of the Bancroft Prize in History. We had thought our lack of a medical school, our land-grant obligations, and our AAU-leading research trajectory would be taken into account during this second stage. Unfortunately, the Review Committee refused to make any “qualitative judgment” that departed from the ranking and the membership went along.
There is within AAU a group of institutions who believe the organization should be smaller and that the rankings are an appropriate measure of institutional quality. We are not the only institution to be affected and if AAU continues with this effort others will be vulnerable. In the end, while we received strong support from almost all of our Big Ten colleagues, all of our former Big 12 colleagues, and other public research universities, it was not sufficient. There were other troubling events during this process, which I may write about in another forum.
So what does this mean for us? I do not see this development in any way impacting our momentum or diminishing our accomplishments. Although there is some reputational advantage to AAU membership, it is difficult to identify specific ways in which our membership was essential or influential in our current success. As University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken often says, we strive to be the best public university in the country as measured by the impact we have on our people and our state, and through them, the world. On that ranking, I think we are in the top tier.