Athletics aren’t the only thing that matters when it comes to conference realignments — not to mention the overall reputation of a university.
As the recent conference realignment drama unfolded, Kansas University sports fans heard discussions about topics that don’t come up often around the grills and coolers of a football tailgate — including KU’s membership in the elite Association of American Universities and the amount of money the school receives from the federal government for its research activity.
The Big 12 Conference appears to be reasonably stable for the moment, but if KU needs to market itself to other conferences someday, AAU membership should be one of its major selling points. Only the University of Texas, the University of Missouri and Iowa State University can claim that distinction among current Big 12 schools. And, according to media reports, conferences such as the Big 10 Conference and the Pacific 12 Conference generally look favorably on institutions with high academic standing as they seek to expand.
Fans who did a little research on where KU might land if the Big 12 imploded could have quickly discovered that while KU’s continued membership in the AAU is an important factor, it can’t be taken for granted. That’s not news to KU leaders, who, rightfully, started pointing out as early as last fall that KU doesn’t compare well with its fellow AAU schools and began devising plans to rectify the issue. The University of Nebraska was voted out of the AAU earlier this year, and Syracuse University left voluntarily rather than face a similar vote.
“I do not intend for KU to face a similar challenge,” KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little wrote to faculty and staff in May, after the two universities were removed.
She knows that losing AAU membership would mean far more than just weaker basketball and football opponents and lost athletic revenue. AAU membership, in addition to being a major point of pride for the university, can make a difference in the quality of people who apply for top leadership and faculty positions.
It’s important that KU’s efforts to raise its scholarly profile are successful and are taken seriously by KU leaders and faculty — both on Mount Oread and at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan. — as well as Kansas legislators and the Kansas Board of Regents. If KU loses its AAU membership, winding up in a mid-major athletic conference might be the least of its worries.