Concerns rise at KU regarding membership status in prestigious research organization

photo by: Associated Press

A bus passes in front of Strong Hall on Nov. 16, 2015, on the University of Kansas campus. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Mabel Rice has taught at the University of Kansas for over 30 years. In that time period, she said concern about KU’s status in the prestigious Association of American Universities has been cyclic.

But right now is a time of concern, according to numerous professors at the institution, including Rice.

Chancellor Douglas Girod said KU is focused on the issue, and that the university is always concerned about its research profile, one of the top indicators of rank within the AAU.

“We went through a series of years from 2013 to 2016 when we had a fairly significant drop in our research dollars. And we’ve reversed that trend and we’ve grown three consecutive years,” Girod said. “But it’s always going to be a challenge for us. I mean, being an institution in the Midwest, being with tight funding federally, it will always be on our radar. There are no gimmies in this, so we’ve got to earn our place there.”

The AAU was founded in 1900 and is composed of America’s leading research universities, according to its website. There are currently 65 members. KU joined its ranks in 1909.

In November, three universities were added to the AAU: Dartmouth College, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Utah. Prior to this, the last time a university was admitted was in 2012.

Universities can also be voted out of the association. In a November article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the publication wrote that while AAU membership brings prestige to its members, “It also brings the fear of being cast out of the club.”

In 2011, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was voted out of the association. That same year, Syracuse University voluntarily withdrew after it became clear it would not meet the association’s revised membership criteria.

“The last member that was essentially booted out was Nebraska, and we’re not that far ahead of where they were in terms of research dollars, especially the highly regarded federal dollars,” said Neal Kingston, a distinguished professor in the School of Education.

Kingston said he’s concerned about KU’s rank in the AAU because of the value that comes with being a member. AAU members include Harvard University, Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan. Membership attracts talented professors and students and makes it easier to receive research funding from national organizations. These factors are important to the health of the state, Kingston said.

“Having a thriving research enterprise is part of the economic engine of the state of Kansas,” he said. If KU were to be removed from the AAU, Kingston said, “It’s not like you’re falling off a cliff, but it’s like you’re going down a steep hill.”

Pedro Ribeiro, vice president for communications for the AAU, said the organization does not comment on membership. Membership is at the discretion of current members, he said, including presidents and chancellors of the member universities. Ribeiro said membership evaluation happens on an “as-needed” basis.

At a meeting of distinguished professors at KU last week, Rice said concerns about KU’s status in the AAU were discussed. Rice, who directs KU’s Merrill Advanced Studies Center, organized the meeting, at which about 35 distinguished professors were present.

While Rice said concerns were voiced, she said the group also communicated the many strengths of the university, the importance of maintaining a high level of research and the belief that KU deserves to be an AAU institution.

“In today’s world it’s easier to push out a negative, crisis-oriented message than it is to push out a legacy message,” Rice said. “We have a long legacy of this. Kansas has always been a fighter. A fighter in demonstrating that counter to the expectations the world has, there’s outstanding things happening here.”

Where KU ranks

Professors at KU are concerned about attracting and retaining faculty, especially research-productive faculty.

KU ranks at the bottom of AAU institutions in terms of faculty compensation. According to the 2018-2019 Faculty Compensation Survey by the American Association of University Professors, KU ranked second to last among AAU institutions in average salaries for professors. The University of Missouri was the only AAU university to rank lower than KU.

While these rankings are affected by the size of different departments at various universities, Kingston said the data is still problematic for KU.

“I am fairly well convinced that if you look at a department-by-department basis, or even specialty-area-by-specialty-area basis, we pay under par. No question about that, on average,” he said.

University spokesman Joe Monaco noted that some top researchers from KU have been recruited to other universities that offer more competitive salaries and funding packages. He also said increasing compensation for faculty and staff is one of KU’s core priorities.

“This year, we were able to provide merit raises for faculty and staff, and as part of the new budget model that Interim Provost (Carl) Lejuez has introduced, we have identified raises as a core priority in the future,” he wrote in an email to the Journal-World. Faculty and staff received raises of up to 2.5% this fiscal year.

In terms of research and development expenditures, KU also ranks low in comparison to other AAU institutions.

According to Higher Education Research and Development Survey (HERD) data, in 2016, only eight AAU universities ranked lower than KU in terms of total research and development expenditures. (Two AAU universities, McGill University and the University of Toronto, are not included on this database because they are Canadian institutions.)

KU ranked No. 79 on the list, which includes universities that expended at least $150,000 in research and development. According to HERD data, KU expended $297 million in 2016.

Kingston called that “nothing to sneeze about,” but said the numbers still aren’t enough.

Monaco specified that, for membership, the AAU looks at normalized data, which measures research funding per faculty member, “rather than in raw dollars overall for the institution.”

“It’s not the number of faculty that matters; what matters is the number of research-productive faculty who help us advance our mission and move these metrics,” Monaco wrote. KU’s new budget model will include research productivity as a metric by which units and departments are funded.

KU’s challenge, according to Girod, will be “shifting people to where we need to on the research side to continue to grow our research profile while managing all our educational responsibilities.”

“We are a little bit smaller as a result of budget stuff. Our enrollment is slightly smaller,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us going forward.”

Moving forward

At the Chancellor’s strategic planning kickoff in early November, Girod specifically outlined enhancing KU’s AAU status as one of three visions he has for the institution.

“We’re focused on it to be sure, and our strategic planning process will be a big part of how we envision continuing to grow our research profile,” he said in an interview with the Journal-World on Wednesday.

Monaco said all of KU’s recent initiatives — last year’s budget realignment, the new budget model and the ongoing strategic planning process — “are designed to enhance the type of work that makes us a strong AAU member.”

Many KU professors also expressed positivity and a belief that the current leadership of the university seems to be focused on enhancing the university’s status in the organization.

“I believe under leadership changes that we have underway at KU, that we will sustain that (AAU status),” Rice said. “But it’s going to take a lot more talking to people, talking to the press, talking to anybody that will listen about our pride in what we do and our belief that what we do is important and matters.”

What KU needs to help its infrastructure and improve its rank in the AAU is increased state support, many professors agreed.

Monaco said that state funding is crucial, and that while the Legislature has restored some funding in the past two years, “state support for KU is still down $14 million in real dollars since 2008. When you factor in inflation and other mandatory costs in higher education, you get an even greater sense of the impact of this decline and the challenges it presents us.”

Rice compared KU’s need for increased state support to the support for KU’s men’s basketball team.

“No one would say to Bill Self, ‘You know, you almost won the NCAA championship last year, so you’re really, really good. So let’s just start taking away a third of your infrastructure budget for the basketball team,'” she said. “Can you imagine anybody saying that? No. They say, ‘We need to give you more money so next year you will win it.'”

When asked if he believed KU would be admitted to the AAU today were it not already a member, Girod said one of the institutions admitted in November has a similar profile to KU.

“I think we have a lot of things going for us,” he said. “I think we are one of the strongest institutions in the Midwest. I think we represent a big part of the country and we have a profile that fits the AAU. So I think we have a lot to offer.”

Have KU news to share?

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact reporter Lauren Fox:


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.