In a press release today, Iowa State University (ISU) announced that “it has concluded its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU)“. For those not steeped in the arcane associations which drive meaning and relevance in much of higher education, the AAU in question is an exclusive research collective which provides no actual benefits to member schools, but nonetheless commands and confers a great deal of prestige in an industry which values tokens of esteem to an embarrassing degree. To that point, while ISU is putting the best possible gloss on this breakup, the truth is that Iowa State would not abandon its AAU membership if it was not already under threat of imminent expulsion.
However this split transpired, it should also not come as a surprise to anyone at Iowa State. From a 5/10/19 blog post titled The Iowa Board of Regents and the AAU:
For arcane reasons related to the AAU membership indicators, ISU is also at significantly greater risk of expulsion, and may have to contribute significantly greater revenues than UI to improve their own membership benchmarks.
It takes a lot of time, effort and most of all money to keep up with the membership requirements of the AAU. While both Iowa State and the University of Iowa used the Iowa Board of Regents’ 2017 Tuition Task Force as a pretext to raise the necessary funds — albeit by brutalizing students and families — ISU was already in a precarious position. (More on all that here.)
While ISU can now plausibly claim that it voluntarily withdrew for principled reasons, as opposed to having been expelled, the fact remains that AAU membership does have meaning in higher-ed, and loss of AAU status will inevitably impact the university in negative ways, including disinterest by top-flight academics and researchers who care about such things. In terms of the education that students receive, however, loss of AAU membership will not only have little or no negative effect, in a just world the university would lower the cost of tuition now that it will not have to shoulder the steep cost of funding the stringent AAU membership metrics. Because there is a 0.0% chance of Iowa State doing anything other than pocketing the resulting savings, however, there are in fact no heroes in this academic divorce.
As for the University of Iowa, not only is it not an immediate risk of expulsion, but ISU’s withdrawal may compel a sense of urgency about maintaining UI’s membership, if only for reasons of vanity and pride. To that end I would not be at all surprised if the Iowa Board of Regents further disconnected the cost of tuition at the three state universities, which it began several years ago by allowing ISU and UI to increase tuition faster than the (much smaller) University of Northern Iowa. As foreshadowed when J. Bruce Harreld was installed by fraud as president of UI, the flagship University of Iowa seems destined to become the school for rich kids, while ISU continues its evolution into little more than a research and development institution for the agriculture industry, and a trade school for entry-level corporate employees.
Excellent reporting, information and context on today’s announcement here, from the Gazette’s Vanessa Miller.
Update 05/02/22: Additional reporting here from Vanessa Miller.
— Mark Barrett