In 2011, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln made history and headlines for being the first institution kicked out of the Association of American Universities by a member vote.
Established in 1900, the AAU had counted Nebraska as a member since 1909.
But in 2011, the selective association of research universities found that Nebraska did not meet its membership criteria, largely regarding federal research funding. With 63 universities in the AAU at the time, 44 voted to remove Nebraska from the group’s roster.
Now, 12 years and two presidents later, Nebraska is working on a plan to return to the AAU.
The Path Back to the AAU
By the time the AAU voted Nebraska out, its membership status had been in peril for over a decade, after surviving an earlier membership review in 2000.
But in 2011, members decided that Nebraska no longer belonged in the AAU based on its performance under a ranking system that weighs research expenditures, faculty membership in the National Academy, certain faculty awards and citations. Nebraska officials were unable to persuade voters, despite a plea from then Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who made the case that the AAU’s “ranking metrics distorted UNL’s actual research accomplishments.”
Perlman said at the time that factors going against Nebraska included the system’s organizational structure, “with separate flagship and medical campuses,” as well as its focus on being a comprehensive university and the devaluation of agricultural research—a strength for Nebraska—in the AAU membership. Perlman wrote a public letter arguing that the AAU prioritized “institutions narrowly focused on disciplines qualified for federal research dollars.”
(The AAU declined to comment for this story beyond sending a link to its membership criteria.)
University of Nebraska system President Ted Carter stepped into his role on Jan. 1, 2020, nearly a decade after UNL left the AAU. But since then, he’s been thinking about a return to the AAU, raising the subject first in private conversations and more recently, in public.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Carter pointed out that Nebraska was one of the first 20 institutions to join the AAU.
“Every public or private institution in the country should say that AAU membership matters,” he said. “It’s not only a show of what your institution can do in terms of competing for research funding and influencing policy, but it’s a statement to faculty as well as our students that we want to be part of the what I would say is the best of the best.”
Carter also said he’s had conversations with the new UNL chancellor, Rodney Bennett—who oversaw the rise of the University of Southern Mississippi from an R2 to an R1 institution—about regaining AAU membership. Both are eager to see Nebraska find a path back to the organization.
Now Nebraska is working on a plan that will include reporting research expenditures from UNL, its flagship campus in Lincoln, in tandem with the University of Nebraska Medical Center located in Omaha. Currently, Carter said, Nebraska ranks 117th nationally for federal research and development dollars. But changing the organizational structure to combine R&D reporting would bump Nebraska to 66th.
“There’s nothing that doesn’t allow us to have the type of institutional control to make our research capabilities between our Med Center and our flagship be reported as a single entity. And that’s effectively what we’re doing,” Carter said.
The nascent plan also focuses on making Nebraska more competitive for federal research dollars, particularly from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
“We need to bring the culture of how we compete for federal funding money to another level,” Carter said.
The president had hoped to make moves toward regaining AAU membership earlier but said enrollment challenges and the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic a few months into his tenure forced Nebraska to play defense. Now the system is going back on offense, Carter said.
“A lot of people are asking the question, ‘Is it really just about joining the AAU?’ I would first point out that we don’t get to determine that; the AAU will decide if we will be invited back. So there should be nobody that questions that we want to be the best set of institutions that we can be, and to go after this is more than aspirational. This is about knowing how to make yourself better,” he said.
Though he doesn’t have a timeline for Nebraska’s return to the AAU, Carter is optimistic. He said plans for an administrative realignment would be presented to the university’s Board of Regents by Dec. 31. For now, details about the path back to the AAU are still being finalized for approval.
Why AAU Membership Matters
The AAU is seen as a prestigious and highly selective organization. It’s also interested in “keeping membership small and distinguished,” John V. Lombardi, president emeritus of the University of Florida and an expert on research universities, told Inside Higher Ed by email.
“The point of AAU membership,” he wrote, is “to set a standard of academic distinction.”
Lombardi noted that the AAU is also influential in policymaking and other areas.
“The benefits of membership are really quite obvious, since higher education is a highly competitive business in the U.S. and all institutions seek public, visible recognition of their distinction to help attract students, faculty, and of course donors,” Lombardi wrote.
He said that membership signifies quality, given “the proliferation of various dubious ranking schemes, and the endless controversies about U.S. News Best College’s popularity.”
George Blumenthal, chancellor emeritus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and former director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that AAU membership is a “measure of achievement” for institutions, signifying status as a top research university.
During his own tenure at UC Santa Cruz, Blumenthal sought to obtain AAU membership—a goal that was achieved shortly after he retired in 2019.
“I probably would have delayed my departure for a few months or a year, if I had known that,” Blumenthal said.
While Nebraska officials are talking openly about their efforts to return to the AAU, Blumenthal kept that aim private as chancellor; he said he didn’t want to set a public goal that he had “no power to bring about,” given that AAU membership decisions ultimately rest in the hands of the organization alone.
AAU membership has ebbed and flowed over its 123-year history. While Nebraska is the first university to be removed by a member vote, it’s not the first to leave the organization’s ranks.
Clark University voluntarily surrendered AAU membership in 1999, followed by the Catholic University of America in 2002, Syracuse University in 2011, and Iowa State University in 2022.
Regarding Clark’s departure, the AAU website notes that “over the years, the institution’s goals had diverged from the strongly research-oriented goals of other AAU institutions.” When Catholic University left, the Washington Post indicated it was over concerns that the institution could “no longer keep up with the pace of major scientific research set by the group’s larger institutions.” Syracuse, like Nebraska, was under membership review when it exited the AAU in 2011. And a news release from Iowa State noted that “indicators used by AAU to rank its members have begun to favor institutions with medical schools and associated medical research funding.”
Long-running speculation about such departures is that the ex-members jumped before they were pushed. Blumenthal suggested institutions that voluntarily exited in recent years did so to “save face” rather than be forced out for falling short of AAU membership criteria, as Nebraska was.
But even as some universities have left the AAU, others have joined.
Earlier this summer the AAU announced it had accepted six new member institutions: Arizona State University; George Washington University; the University of California, Riverside; the University of Miami; the University of Notre Dame; and the University of South Florida.
AAU membership now stands at an all-time high of 71 institutions. While no former AAU member has yet been welcomed back to its membership roll after leaving, Carter, a former Navy pilot and superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy from 2016 to 2019, believes Nebraska can be the first.
“I love that challenge,” he said. “Tell me I can’t do something and then get out of the way and watch.”