Nebraska Sacked! Was Expulsion from the AAU Reprisal for Leaving the Big 12?

David Moore@@CougarCentreSLCCorrespondent IIMay 7, 2011

Was Nebraska Sacked by the Association of American Universities for changing conferences?
Was Nebraska Sacked by the Association of American Universities for changing conferences?Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Within higher education circles of the U.S. and Canada there is no higher honor for an institution than to be affiliated with the Association of American Universities (AAU). While all of us on these boards love college sports, and in this instance college football, over the years AAU affiliation has been a significant factor in conference alignment, particularly for the Big Ten and Pac-12. Ever wonder why those two leagues have had the Rose Bowl agreement they’ve had since 1947? Look no further than the academic affiliation that dominates both leagues.

After a tumultuous 2010 where conference realignment was the major focus of the offseason, perhaps the ugliest divorce and remarriage of a school moving from one BCS AQ league to another potentially contributed to an ugly result on the academic side when, on April 29th, University of Nebraska (Lincoln) Chancellor Harvey Perlman revealed in an email to faculty and staff that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had been indeed expelled from the academically prestigious AAU.

This action by the AAU is the first in its 111-year history, and as much as anything it is as dubious an honor as it can get for Nebraska since it comes right on the eve of its historic move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. For the record Clark University (1999) and the Catholic University of America (2002) voluntarily left the AAU when confronted with a similar review process. Also, by later this year, Syracuse University will voluntarily leave the AAU

This proved to be a very politically divisive move that required the approval of a two-thirds majority of the 62-member AAU institutions. In conclusion 44 votes were received calling for Nebraska’s removal. In the end, reading the many accounts and sources of this action leads one to believe that perhaps it was the change in athletic conference affiliation that just might have been the last straw.

Nebraska had come under some scrutiny by the late 1990s since, by Perlman’s own admission, Nebraska was at a disadvantage by not having its medical school on campus, but rather based in Omaha and under a different administrative flag in the system. 

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Also a significant amount of the research Nebraska is involved with is under the auspices of the land-grant college system started in the 19th century and is covered by federal grants awarded by agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which use a different award criteria than the peer-reviewed metrics preferred by the AAU. This is largely why other land-grant schools such as Penn State (1958), Iowa State (1958), Purdue (1958) and Michigan State (1964) came to the organization several decades after its founding.  Such a methodology in ranking strongly favors schools with on-campus medical schools and also have large graduate engineering and associated sciences.

Throughout the conference realignment process last year many at Nebraska touted its academic fit for the Big Ten by being a fellow AAU-affiliated institution, joining the organization at the same time as many additional Big Ten schools not quite a decade after the turn of the 20th century. This was an obvious turnoff to six of the members of the Big 12 (Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa State & Colorado), which also belong to the AAU.

But speculation still abounds in many Nebraska newspaper reports that AAU President Robert Berdahl and several AAU member presidents wanted Nebraska expelled due to the spat over the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Many members of the Nebraska Board of Regents as well as the administration, faculty and staff felt that a vendetta indeed was in place. While the AAU does not release voter specifics (being a private organization), over the voting period, 44 votes came in to support the resolution to force Nebraska out.

Much speculation centers with Texas since Berdahl (who is retiring from the AAU at the end of this month) was President at Texas during the 1990s when the Big 12 was formed. Perlman claims that Nebraska was supported by all the Big Ten and Big 12 institutions in the organization. Was Nebraska singled out for review by the AAU last February due to its announced change in athletic conferences last year?

While many might speculate the six other Big 12 schools voted the Huskers out of the academic elite club, the ouster has caused quite a stir at Kansas University and the University of Missouri, fearing they could be next on the short list.

Many questions now arise about Nebraska’s formal inclusion in the Big Ten scheduled to begin in less than two months. How will other schools in a league that historically for decades has had its members exclusively as part of the AAU feel about Nebraska? Or will Perlman feel as ostracized as he did during that awful week in Washington at the annual AAU meetings last month?

While Big Ten Commissioner Bill Delaney gave Nebraska a vote of confidence, how are the other league presidents going to feel about this move now that such an adverse action has taken place? Delaney will quickly point to past league interest in Notre Dame (not an AAU member), but how will the presidents/chancellors who call the shots with conference business feel about having an “expelled AAU member” in their club? There is a huge difference in perception obviously in those that have never been invited to the club to those who’ve been kicked out; even Perlman has pointed this out himself.

But many are now questioning the effectiveness of the AAU, not just as a Washington lobby for more federal research funding from Congress, but questioning if such an esteemed organization is good for higher education in general. Is this now perhaps a chance for the Big Ten to break from tradition and fully embrace Nebraska as its forthcoming 12th member? Or is this perhaps to further create a league environment more open to accepting Notre Dame should larger super-leagues be forthcoming?


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