Iowa State left a prestigious association. What does that mean for the school’s reputation?

ISU leadership says it will continue to be ‘renowned,’ but an Ames senator says the withdrawal was ‘a significant blow’

By: - April 25, 2022 7:10 pm

What does Iowa State's withdrawal from the prestigious Association of American Universities mean for its reputation? (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa State University ended its membership last week in the prestigious Association of American Universities, a group of nearly five dozen top-tier research universities. Iowa State cited the association’s perceived preference for universities with medical schools as its reason for leaving.

“While the university’s core values have not changed since joining the association in 1958, the indicators used by AAU to rank its members have begun to favor institutions with medical schools and associated medical research funding,” a news release from Iowa State read.

Following the announcement, Iowa State leadership emphasized that the withdrawal from AAU would not compromise the school’s reputation. President Wendy Wintersteen said the university “has always been and will continue to be a renowned research university.” A news release noted that Iowa State excels “in several important areas not prioritized by the AAU,” including low tuition costs, retention, post-graduation employment rates and the number of first-generation students.

“Ultimately, our efforts are measured by the success of our students, the innovation of our faculty, and our service to Iowa and the world,” Wintersteen said in the news release. “These metrics are not exclusive to any one institution or group of institutions.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat representing Ames and a former Iowa State professor, said the decision to leave AAU was nevertheless “a significant blow to the reputation of the university” — a blow that may have far-reaching ripple effects.

“I believe that, in the coming years, it will make it harder for us to recruit top faculty and to attract top graduate students,” Quirmbach said. “That will mean that the classroom education will suffer, and the research will suffer.”

Iowa State Professor Andrea Wheeler, president of the faculty senate, said the university “cannot know yet” how the change will impact faculty recruitment.

“ISU faculty are renowned for their excellence in research,” Wheeler wrote in an email. “Faculty will continue to ensure world-class programs and cutting-edge research.”

She also touted the school’s affordability and accessibility for first-generation students.

“In terms of recruitment, the decision does not impact the excellence of the undergraduate student experience or our land grant mission,” Wheeler wrote.

The AAU is made up of 65 research universities in the U.S. and Canada. The organization formed in 1900 as a way to standardize higher education, then shifted in the 1930s to focus on research partnerships with the federal government. Since then, AAU has advocated on behalf of top research universities, according to the AAU website.

Member universities receive a large chunk of research funding, according to AAU: In 2019, members received $27.7 billion in federal funds. The largest share of that funding was from the Department of Health and Human Services, with $15.7 billion allocated to AAU members.

Iowa State does not have a medical school, but the news release touted its grant funding for other research projects.

“When all research funding is considered equally, Iowa State ranks among the top 71 (or top 11%) of 655 U.S. research institutions and is among the top 100 worldwide receiving U.S. patents, again a testament to the innovation of its faculty and staff,” the release reads.

University of Iowa has been a member of AAU since 1909. Prior to leaving the organization, Iowa State had been a member for 64 years, first joining in 1958. Iowa State remains a member in several other groups, including the APLU, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the University Innovation Alliance.

Iowa State spokesperson Angie Hunt said the university paid $134,000 in annual dues to be part of the AAU.

Thursday’s announcement comes as lawmakers negotiate a state budget, including appropriations for public universities. A proposal by the House — the only proposal publicly available — would keep Regents funding flat in fiscal year 2023, the third consecutive year without an increase.

Read more: Proposed GOP budget for state universities is less than 20 years ago

Quirmbach renewed his call for additional state funding to the Regents universities.

“I’m an ardent advocate for funding for the university, long before AAU membership came into question… I think that we need to increase state funding, and I think that that would be one element along the way in possibly rejoining AAU,” Quirmbach said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.