Honors, Old and New
It's fun to make the cut and get into an exclusive club, but for institutions, there has to be a reason to put a lot of effort into getting into the club.
The American Association of Universities has a mystique associated with the venerability of its longstanding members and the high rankings of its newcomers. So a lot of aspiring institutions openly seek membership: one spokesperson for a wistful non-member called the AAU "perhaps the most elite organization in higher education. You'd probably be hard-pressed to find a major research university that didn't want to be a member of the AAU."
Indeed, the AAU is mentioned five times in USF's 2013 - 2018 Strategic Plan. But what are the effects of making AAU membership a major goal?
Let's look at another exclusive club. The grand old exclusive club of academia is Phi Beta Kappa. It's an honors society -- some would say, the honors society -- for undergraduate students: if you graduate at a member institution at a high enough level, you get a Phi Beta Kappa key and a subscription to the Key Reporter. Something for very accomplished students to strive for. With its focus on the liberal arts and undergraduate education, PBK represents high standards in the mission that most Floridians probably set for their universities, the mission reflected in the title of USF's catalog, Accent on Learning.
And there's the rub. USF is no longer a regional institution; USF is an anchor of the I-4 High-Tech Corridor with international standing in research and scholarship. While we are proud to be drawing undergraduate students from all over the world, it might seem more sensible to focus on USF's unfolding mission to help bring Florida into the Twenty-first century. That means research and scholarship, and over the past hundred years, the American Association of Universities has come to represent that academic frontier.
On the surface, the question of whether to make PBK membership a priority or to make AAU membership a priority would look like the old teaching versus research conundrum. But recall the old claim that a research university cannot do good research without teaching well. That may sound like an alibi, but there may be something to it, something reflected in the PBK and AAU membership lists.
First of all, part of USF's strategy is reflected in the eleven institutions that the USF leadership has designated as our eight national peers and three aspirational peers. Here they are, with PBK and AAU membership noted:
Perhaps AAU membership is within reach. Three of our national peers and two of our aspirational peers are members. But notice that seven of our national peers and two of our aspirational peers are PBK members.
| Georgia Tech|| ||X|
|North Carolina State ||X|| |
|SUNY Buffalo||X|| |
|SUNY Stony Brook||X||X|
|U. Alabama at Birmingham|| || |
| UC San Diego||X||X|
|U. Cincinnati||X|| |
|U. Illinois at Chicago||X|| |
| U. Pittsburgh||X|| |
|U. S. F.|| || |
The basic membership numbers are these. The AAU has 62 members, one of them in Florida (the University of Florida). PBK has 283 members, six of them in Florida (Eckerd College, Florida International University, Florida State University, Stetson College, the University of Florida, and the University of Miami). In other words, both universities designated as "pre-eminent" by the Florida legislature last spring (along with another Florida public university and three private institutions) have PBK chapters. And USF does not.
The situation is more stark if we look at one benchmark that USF proudly holds: we are one of the 108 institutions listed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a Carnegie Research University / Very High research activity. And of those 108 institutions, USF is one of the eighteen that are not PBK members.
There are at least two ways to look at this. One is to take a cynical view of the AAU, which may be a mere creature of fashion, issuing invitations that reflect trendy and remunerative research. The cynics need only point at the departures of Catholic, Clark, Nebraska and Syracuse Universities from the AAU - two of them because of the AAU's focus on research and two of them because of the AAU's indifference to unfashionable research. All four of these universities are PBK members.
Another, and possibly more realistic, view is to regard the AAU as a group of 62 universities that collectively receive more than half of all federal research grant money. That requires clout; that requires infrastructure; that requires established research programs. And 57 of the 62 AAU institutions are members of PBK (the exceptions being CalTech, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech, McGill, and Toronto). If USF is to gain that kind of standing - whether or not as an official AAU member - we should look around. And if we do, we see many public research universities, like USF. A few are AAU members, many are AAU contenders, and the rest are aspiring. And most of those in USF's own weight class are PBK members. What does that tell us?
There is a very important difference between the AAU and PBK. To get into the AAU, one must be invited, and like Mary Poppins, the AAU never explains anything. But to get into PBK, one must apply, and if PBK declines, they will explain why. This difference has one significant effect. If one is not invited into the AAU but some peer is, then one might imagine that perhaps a few strategic hires, perhaps a few new trendy programs, perhaps a bit of marketing will get one in. One can go to the legislature and say that despite years of cutbacks and harassment, brilliant management and hardworking faculty have brought the institution to the very brink of AAU membership. In fact, today's mail hasn't arrived yet ...
But there's no getting around what PBK wrote to USF in 2010. And they've complained about the student-faculty ratio (and the library) before (USF has been applying every three years or so). We're not talking about anything that can be done on the cheap. We are back at the same problem with the rankings: lack of resources. This is a problem that no strategic hires, trendy programs, or marketing will fix.
Perhaps, instead of speaking hopefully about AAU membership, we should be talking bluntly about PBK membership. And there is an advantage to this approach: PBK membership is closer to the Legislature's own stated goals.
Making Our Case
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities is a less exclusive body than the AAU. Their seven members in Florida are Florida A & M, FGCU, FIU, New College, UCF, UNF, and UWF. But greater membership, and in all fifty states, means more political clout. And possibly more political savvy, for the AASCU has proposed a New Compact Between States and Public Higher Education that employs legislators' favorite buzzwords, and then some strategies, like: Align Messaging with the State Agenda, Communicate the Public Good of Public Higher Education, Encourage Others to Speak for Higher Education, Utilize a Strategic Institutional State Relations Program, Establish a Public Engagement Master Plan, Champion the Vital Role of Public Comprehensive Universities, and Emphasize Collaboration and Cooperation among Education Sectors.
The Compact is quite clear about what the problem is: politicians who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. And they propose something to do about it: articulate one's goals with those of the political establishment, and get the establishment to commit to them. So here it is: politicians talk about quality undergraduate education, and PBK is the gold standard of undergraduate education. We can say to the legislature that the State of Florida will get what it's willing to pay for. If the Legislature points to the six PBK members in Florida, the obvious retort is that PBK has 283 members, and one would expect Florida to have three times as many PBK chapters as it does.
If USF's problem in the rankings and USF's problem with PBK are ultimately linked to funding, it is quite possible that USF has a funding problem with the AAU. Of course, the AAU will never tell us, and in not telling us, they enable us to enable the Legislature to pretend that funding is not a problem.
In fact, funding may be the problem. Much of the harassment that Florida's scholars and educators have endured over the last decade and a half was motivated by politicians trying to badger us into silence. Perhaps, by stressing the AAU, we are unwittingly playing the Legislature's game: if we only worked smarter and harder, and not more expensively, we'd get into the AAU. And if we don't, says the Legislature, it's our own fault. But with PBK membership, we all know where the buck stops.
Perhaps the time has come for some cold water, courtesy of PBK.