Improving AAU status is a long-term game following budget cuts, leadership changes

MU spokesman Christian Basi: “AAU status would not be directly affected by any cuts to our budget. However, in the long term, it could be difficult to maintain some of the areas that support our high quality research and teaching.”

At a general faculty meeting in April 2014, then-Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin urged Faculty Council to consider the face of the university in 50 years.

“Why can’t we be the aspirational land grant (university)?” Loftin said in a Mizzou Weekly article.

At the time, Loftin was addressing faculty’s qualms about the planned 2 percent budget reallocations for the next four years, starting with the 2014–15 school year, that would fund MU’s Strategic Operating Plan. The plan was later extended two years and named Mizzou 2020. One focus of the plan is a set of initiatives to improve MU’s Association of American Universities metrics and overall standing.

Two years later, improving MU’s standing in the AAU is still a long-term game.

With the change in leadership at both a university and system level, active work on Mizzou 2020 has slowed considerably and “taken a backseat to other important issues,” said associate professor Dennis Miller, Mizzou 2020 Evaluation Committee chairman. MU is facing a $32 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year in the face of declining enrollment. In November, MU was in the national spotlight following graduate student Jonathan Butler's hunger strike and a boycott by the football team. Loftin and UM System President Tim Wolfe both resigned on Nov. 9, 2015. Additionally, graduate students are planning to hold a union election April 18.

The AAU is a group of 62 top research universities across the U.S. and Canada. AAU status indicates to experts across the country that the university engages in quality research and is important when recruiting faculty, MU spokesman Christian Basi said in email.

Loftin and former UM System President Tim Wolfe’s goal was to improve MU’s AAU ranking from 32nd out of 34 public universities to 28th by 2018, according to Columbia Tribune reporting. The AAU does not publicly publish its rankings; however, Loftin and Wolfe divulged MU’s ranking in relation to the long-term goals of the university.

“Chancellor Foley and President Middleton are in a situation where with the things that happened on campus last fall, our funding priorities had to change a bit,” Miller said. “The impact of our relationship with Jefferson City and the impact of decreased enrollment for the fall will have an impact on what the campus can do with its resources.”

However, MU’s designation as an AAU member is unlikely to change because of short-term budget cuts.

“AAU status would not be directly affected by any cuts to our budget,” Basi said. “However, in the long term, it could be difficult to maintain some of the areas that support our high quality research and teaching.”

The AAU’s metrics are in two phases, and members must continually improve them to remain competitive. They emphasize competitive federal research support, faculty awards and membership in national academies, among other indicators that value certain types of faculty and research.

Professor John Boyer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and his hiring in 2014 improved MU’s membership standing score in the AAU by 12.5 percent, according to previous Maneater reporting.

Boyer said AAU membership influenced his decision to come to the university, but ultimately it was the “highly interactive faculty and students, whom I have known and admired for most of my career,” who drew him here.

Still, Boyer believes MU’s AAU status is the source of some of the success of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, a community of MU faculty, students, postdoctoral fellows and professionals researching in the field of plant biology.

“There may be a feedback with the AAU attracting more committed students, the IPG gaining recognition because of them and in turn attracting better students,” Boyer said in an email. “It is amazing to see the positions of responsibility attained by many IPG students and an honor to be part of it!”

Being a member of the AAU allows MU administrators to sit at the table with other AAU member schools and discuss common campus issues, as well as work together to get more federal funding.

“We are deeply affected by federal funds in terms of grants we’re able to get, what our graduate students are able to do work on, what our professors are able to do work on and the products of that research that we produce,” said graduate student Kaitlin Steen, who interned with the AAU last summer.

Steen is the executive director of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, a student lobbying group. She believes that, beyond federal funding, the AAU is important for the future of MU’s research quality and overall reputation.

“Our membership in the AAU is extremely important to the future of the University of Missouri and our reputation on a national stage and international stage in terms of the research we are able to produce,” Steen said.

Membership in the AAU also allows for research collaboration among the member universities, a recent example being a sexual assault report survey released last year.

The goal of Mizzou 2020 is to advise the UM System on how MU can better reflect AAU ideals, even though some faculty believe the AAU metrics leave out certain departments and research areas, as some are weighted heavier than others. In 2012, the University of Nebraska was voted out of the AAU in part because of its strong focus on agricultural reseach, which is not valued highly in the AAU, according to Columbia Missourian reporting.

“The strategic goals of Mizzou 2020 will improve the stature of the university overall,” Miller said. “It emphasizes what the university wants to do, where we want to put our resources. We want to put our resources into student engagement, we want to put our resources into improving our research capabilities, our research outlook, we want to put our priorities into improving the economic development of the state.”

As the executive director of ASUM, Steen has been privy to the ongoing conversations about MU’s budget throughout the legislative session. She believes the outlook is better than originally thought, but regardless of cuts, status within the AAU shouldn’t be sidelined.

“We should still put effort toward improving our status within the AAU, in conjunction with other issues on campus, but that definitely shouldn’t be something that goes away,” Steen said.

Edited by Taylor Blatchford |

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