If you followed the conference expansion saga last summer, you may remember that Midwestern observers claimed academics would be a huge factor in the decision of the Big
Ten Eleven T welve Ten. Jim Delaney's conference takes academics seriously. They play by the rules. Sure, they might not be so good at "winning", but it's because they refuse to sacrifice integrity in pursuit of sports glory.
To a lot of SEC fans, this sounded like another excuse for losing a lot of high profile games, but Big Rust Belt fans countered by "proving" academics matter: They are the only athletic conference with 100% membership in the American Association of Universities. SEC alums yawned, then asked "What?"
Turns out the AAU is a research consortium of sixty-two American and Canadian universities. The AAU grew from a charter membership of fourteen schools, three of which were also members of the Big Ten. Membership is by invitation only, and requires an affirmative vote from three-quarters of existing members. AAU membership was such a big deal to the Big Ten conference, the Chancellor of the University of Nebraska admitted, "I doubt that our application [to the Big Ten] would've been accepted had we not been a member."Awww, fiddlesticks. Nebraska is now the first school in the history of the Association of American Universities to be expelled from the club. Whatever you think of the AAU, getting kicked out is definitely worse than never joining in the first place.
If you read the story, you will see some of the problems with treating the AAU as the be all and end all of academic organizations. Nebraska Chancellor Perlman complains that the state's university system is organized with a separate medical campus, so the university does not get credit for the millions of research dollars brought in by the Nebraska Medical Center. This is apparently unusual, but it is the way we do it in South Carolina, so our university would face a similar hurdle.
The AAU also does not count research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which puts land-grant institutions like Nebraska (and most of the SEC) at a major disadvantage. I can't really say much about this arbitrary decision without getting too political, but it does seem entirely consistent with the thinking of elitists whose concern with agricultural issues is limited to worries over the price of arugula at Whole Foods.
How concerned are Nebraska officials about getting kicked out of the AAU? Not very.
Says university Chancellor Perlman: "I honestly don't think it's going to change anything."
His sentiments were echoed by the Vice-Chancellor, who was unapologetic for the school's dedication to the land-grant mission: "Frankly, the country needs the type of research we're doing. The state needs the research we're doing. We're doing big things."
The Carnegie Foundation agrees. According to their apolitical estimation, Nebraska joins South Carolina and eight other SEC schools (get it together, Alabama) as Tier 1 Research Universities*. The Carnegie Foundation is legitimately prestigious - they don't have to lecture the audience to convince you of their value.
There are many ways for a university to serve a state's citizens. I am proud the University of South Carolina focuses on undergraduate education, even at the expense of the graduate-level research valued by AAU member schools. I am certain that many Nebraska alumni feel similar pride in their alma mater's dedication to the people of the Cornhusker State. In any field of endeavor, the people or institutions that truly excel rarely feel the need to remind others how excellent they are. The Ivy League seems to do just fine without 100% membership in the AAU. Perhaps the Big Ten will find a way to endure as well. They may even learn how to count.
* You'll notice that USC is the only Palmetto State school to make the cut. That's because, unlike US News & World Report, the Carnegie Foundation uses criteria slightly more stringent than asking, 'Be honest: are you awesome?'