Iowa State steps down from the Association of American Universities


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Jack Mcclellan

Iowa State University announced the termination of its membership with the Association of American Universities in a surprising Inside Iowa State news release.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) is just one of the many organizations that exist among universities, but it is known to identify America’s leading research institutions. Universities join the reputable organization by invitation only, yet Iowa State is willingly stepping down from the AAU. 

Some faculty are concerned that Iowa State’s ability to attract high-quality faculty and graduate students without an AAU membership may suffer, and with it, the classroom experience.

“I think the AAU membership was valuable, and we should have fought to maintain it,” said David Peterson, a professor of political science. “I understand that the calculus of a graceful exit might be a better PR move than getting kicked out. But if there was any chance we stayed in, I think it would have been worth it.”

Not all faculty share Peterson’s concern, instead predicting that the AAU membership will not adversely affect the university or its students.

“We, being part of one of these organizations, really has no impact on our ability to garner funding and resources to support our students and faculty, it has no bearing on whether we get grants funded or not, no bearing on whether we work with companies, for example, in partnership,” said Peter Dorhout, vice president for research at Iowa State. “Companies and other organizations come to the university because of the talent that we have in our students, our faculty and our staff.” 

According to the Inside Iowa State news release in which the decision to leave the organization was announced, Iowa State’s own priorities as a research institution do not align with the types of research and awards that the AAU prioritizes.

“The decision to end AAU membership is driven by Iowa State’s commitment to its mission, strengths and impact,” the news release reads. “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.”

Iowa State’s president, Wendy Wintersteen, was quoted in the article, expressing optimism over Iowa State’s current standing among other research institutions as well as students.

“Iowa State has always been and will continue to be a renowned research university.” Wendy Wintersteen said. “We remain committed to our land-grant mission of creating a world-class educational experience for our students and providing research and technical expertise to benefit society and Iowans in every corner of the state.”

The news release also pointed out that funding from the National Institute of Health has increased much more than other national institutes over the last 30 years. Because of this, medical research can be far more lucrative than the types of projects often being taken up at Iowa State.

“The NIH budget at the federal level has grown dramatically, but as a result, the AAU seems to have shifted their emphasis to select institutions with large amounts of (National Institute of Health) funding.” Wrote Amy Andreotti, a university professor in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology.

According to Andreotti, universities with medical schools are far more likely to receive funding from the National Institute of Health because of their access to medical patients. Due to Iowa State lacking a human medical school, it receives proportionally less National Institute of Health funding than other institutions in the AAU.

“Obviously, it’s desirable to be at a university that is viewed as a high-quality institution, and the AAU is one measure of this,” Andreotti said in an email response. “But it’s only a single measure, and I don’t think that the high quality of ISU is affected at all by the decision to end our AAU membership. We have so many world-class researchers on campus, and we have a phenomenal focus on students.”

Iowa State faculty members are divided in their thoughts on the merits of the university outside of the AAU. While some fear that the university will not have the same weight it did before, others have more optimistic views.

“My own experience in having a research group here at Iowa State that has been continuously funded by grants from the National Institute of Health since 1999 gives me confidence that our AAU membership will not have an adverse effect on research and teaching,” Andreotti said. “I fully expect that ISU faculty will continue to be successful in securing NIH funding well into the future.”

Regardless of Iowa State’s AAU membership, the university remains one of the most affordable universities in the nation. Iowa State still ranks in the top 10 percent of research universities for federal funding from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

“Iowa State University faculty are renowned for their excellence in research, and Iowa State University faculty will continue to teach in world-class programs and carry out cutting-edge research,” said Andrea Wheeler, Faculty Senate president. “In terms of student recruitment, the decision does not impact the excellence of the undergraduate student experience. ISU celebrates its accessibility and affordability, which is not so well accounted for by the AAU group.”

While Iowa State’s administration stated the choice to leave was dependent on the AAU’s research priorities, some faculty members have suggested the decision came from a fear of being placed under review or voted out of the organization.

In 2011, Nebraska University at Lincoln was voted out of the AAU by its fellow members, while Syracuse University left voluntarily after being placed under review. 

Iowa State’s administration declined to comment any further than the statements in the news release.

Shortly after the Nebraska and Syracuse universities were kicked out of the AAU, Iowa State administrators began encouraging faculty members to target specific criteria when selecting research projects.

“And we were given this list, right,” Peterson said. “This was emailed to us and said, ‘Hey, we should be; these are the awards we as faculty should be targeting.’ And so lots of folks did right; there was attention paid to that. ​​There were incentives for us to then target those awards. You know, that was eight to ten years ago, and something has changed.”

Since 2011, the focus on targeting these criteria has died down, leaving faculty to select projects based on their necessity and feasibility at Iowa State.

“Maybe this is a realization that we are not a comprehensive university or that, given budget problems, that we cannot be or we cannot strive to be a comprehensive university that has strengths across campus,” Peterson said.

The AAU decides what universities will be invited into the organization through a two-stage process. In the first, the AAU Membership Committee considers quantitative indicators to assess the quality of institutions, while in the second, more qualitative considerations are made on the characteristics and trajectory.

“Based on the factors of how universities are evaluated at what the AAU holds to be the key metrics that they look at for funding and the balance of funding, that we simply don’t meet those expectations,” Dorhout said.

Dorhout also pointed out that the AAU imposes a pretty hefty annual fee on its members, charging $134,000 a year to maintain the membership.

“We have not lost our focus on students,” Dorhout said. “We strive to be a student-centric leading research university in this country. And we’re not going to lose focus on that.”