Research: What’s (and Who’s) Important?

May 2, 2011

Interesting story today in Inside Higher Education about the departures from the Association of American Universities (AAU) of the University of Nebraska and Syracuse University.  Nebraska is forced out because it no longer meets the newly-revised standards for research activity; Syracuse is leaving voluntarily, out of disagreement with the new standard.  Nut graf:

Officials at both institutions complain that the metrics the group uses to assess its members define the contributions of high-quality research universities too narrowly, focusing excessively on biomedical research and the volume of federally supported research. To Nebraska officials, that means undervaluing the university’s land-grant mission, and in the eyes of administrators at Syracuse, giving inadequate weight to interdisciplinary and urban-focused research to which few federal funds flow.

The AAU is an organization of (currently) 62 public and private research universities, the most research-intensive and -prestigious institutions in North America (there are some Canadian members).

On Education Sector, Kevin Carey unloads:

Elite University Presidents Love Rankings

by Kevin Carey on May 2, 2011

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln was kicked out of the exclusive AAU last month after the private association revised its membership criteria:

Presidents say that in recent years discussions about membership in the association have become much more quantified, with an increasing emphasis on a rankings methodology developed by the membership committee and senior AAU staff. Last April the association as a whole adopted revised criteria that place an emphasis on federal research dollars.

These are, of course, the same universities whose presidents routinely denounce any and all outside organizations that publish college rankings of any kind, on the grounds that rankings are inherently reductive, distortionary, misleading, immoral, etc. Turns out they’re perfectly fine with rankings–indeed, they want more of them–as long as they control the rankings, and the rankings are about something (research) they actually care about.

The inside baseball part of the story, in which the ouster vote took place during secretive AAU meetings held in the same luxury Washington, DC hotel frequented by Hollywood celebrities and visiting heads of state, reminds us that elite universities are best understood not as distinctly public-minded bodies but rather just another collection of long-established and inherently conservative organizations pursuing a predictable agenda of rent-seeking, cabal formation, wealth accumulation, and power maximization.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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