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MU celebrates 100 years of AAU membership

Robert Berdahl

Robert Berdahl, AAU president, joined Chancellor Brady Deaton and other distinguished speakers at the Bond Life Sciences Center Oct. 27, 2008, to celebrate MU's 100 years of AAU membership.

Photo by Clay McGlaughlin

The University of Missouri celebrated its centennial anniversary of membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) with the help of AAU President Robert Berdahl. The AAU is a nonprofit association of 60 leading U.S. and two Canadian public and private research universities.

"As Missouri's first great and only flagship university, we play a very significant role in the history and future of this institution," said Deaton of the association.

Berdahl's centennial address titled, "Research Universities: Addressing Societal Issues of the 21st Century," recounted the genesis of the AAU and explained the importance of the organization. Read excerpts of the speech below. 

We've come a long way

"I love to walk across the campuses of these great Midwestern universities in the fall, with the leaves turning, the weather crisp, and the excitement of new classes or Saturday football in the air. It reminds me of my own roots in the Midwest and my time spent at the Universities of Minnesota and Illinois. Whenever I’m on a campus like this, I am awed by the kind of commitment and vision it required to build it. When the 900 citizens of Boone County put up $118,000 to win the location of the university here in Columbia, they made an incredible commitment to the notion that a public university is important. I suspect that few of them had ever attended a college or university; they were farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, bankers, preachers, and teachers. But they had a vision of the public good that could come from building a great university. Some, undoubtedly, were not terribly literate, but they understood the importance of books. They probably didn’t know a great deal about classical Greece, but they understood that it was a glorious moment in the history of thought and so they built Academic Hall representing that ideal, the Ionic columns of which still stand as a reminder of their vision.

"When the University of Missouri was elected to membership in the Association of American Universities, or AAU, in 1908, it joined a very small group of American universities which at that time were committed to excellence in research and graduate education.  The AAU was established in 1900 by fourteen American universities – three publics (the universities of California, Wisconsin and Michigan), and eleven privates (six of the Ivys, plus Chicago, Hopkins, Stanford, Clark and Catholic, the latter two of which were at that time engaged in doctoral education).  The AAU was established as a means of asserting the quality of American graduate education, which was regarded with disdain by European universities at that time, and it sought to establish common standards for doctoral education.  The initial imbalance between public and private universities was corrected with the addition of the University of Virginia in 1904, Missouri, Illinois, and Minnesota in 1908, and Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa, and Indiana in 1909.  

"Eleven additional universities joined AAU prior to World War II, bringing the total to 33; with the growth of higher education from the 1950s onward, AAU continued to grow until today it comprises 60 of the leading U.S. and 2 Canadian research universities.  Throughout its early years it functioned as something of an accreditation association, certifying not only its own institutions, but others throughout the nation.  Developed by the graduate deans, the “AAU Accepted List” indicated the institutions whose graduates had received an education preparing them for graduate work.  American universities played a vital role in winning World War II, and as the federal government began to invest in university-based research through NSF and NIH, the departments of energy and defense, and later NASA, and as AAU grew in its size and importance, the presidents began to play a more important role in national research and education policy discussions.  In 1977, AAU established a permanent office in Washington; today we have a staff of 21 and work with all the federal agencies funding research as well as with Congress on measures affecting higher education generally.

"So we have come along way since 1900 or 1908.  There was no world-wide ranking of universities at the beginning of the twentieth century, but if there had been, the top twenty on the list would have been dominated by European universities, primarily in Germany and Britain.  Today, American universities lead the world.  Of the top twenty listed in the international survey produced by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, 17 are American; 2 are British, and one is Japanese.  Forty of the top fifty are American.  Surveying America’s capacity to compete in a globalized world, political commentator Fareed Zakaria has declared: “Indeed, higher education is the United States’ best industry.  In no other field is the United States’ advantage so overwhelming….And although China and India are opening new institutions, it is not that easy to create a world-class university out whole cloth in a few decades.”

"We have come a long way in the last century.

"But America’s lead may be less secure than Zakaria suggests.  Neither the University of California, San Diego (ranked 14th by Jiao Tong) nor the University of California, Santa Barbara (ranked 35th) existed fifty years ago.  And China, at least, is pouring substantial resources into building a number of world-class universities, while oil-rich Saudi Arabia is intent upon building a research university in the next few years to equal the best universities anywhere.  King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, is recruiting the best faculty it can find anywhere in the world and it is being launched with an endowment that will, from the outset, be larger than any university endowment in the world except for Harvard and Yale.  The competitive advantage the United States currently enjoys is obvious, but retaining it should not be taken for granted; the support from state governments for their “flagship” public universities and the partnership between research universities and the federal government must be renewed and enhanced if America’s lead is to be sustained."

The future of public research universities

"Maintaining public research universities is important because strong public institutions provide the competition that makes the private universities better. Berkeley is better because it compares itself with Stanford and Stanford is better because it competes as well as collaborates with Berkeley.

"Other countries, whose ministries of education have generally provided essentially equal resources to all their universities, are changing direction because they realize they cannot develop competitive excellence without selective support for excellence.  China has identified a dozen institutions into which it is pouring a disproportionate percentage of resources.  Australia is about to initiate a program for investment in five or six of its universities in the hope of advancing them to world-class competitive status.  Germany has launched an “excellence initiative,” a competition among its universities for the infusion of differential funding into a few institutions in order to enhance their quality and international position. In this context, it would be utterly foolhardy to move in the opposite direction and allow the excellence we have built in our public research universities to decline.  While it may take several decades to build a world-class university, it takes much less time to destroy one by neglect.

"The structure of American public higher education makes it somewhat more difficult to develop a coordinated national strategy because public education is largely in the jurisdiction of the states.  As we have noted, the politics of state legislatures often works to the disadvantage of flagships; indeed, I was chastised at both Illinois and Berkeley for referring to my campus as a “flagship.”  So I was pleased to note that Mizzou unabashedly refers to itself as “Missouri’s Flagship University.”  Without disparaging the substantial contributions of other state colleges and universities, I believe we must recapture the identity of the flagship metaphor – the ship in the fleet that bears the admiral’s flag, where fleet strategy and direction is developed; it is the ship which sails in collaboration with the rest of the fleet, with its fire power enhanced and protected by the rest of the fleet.

"How will we do this?

"I believe it will require some changing perceptions both within state legislatures and within the universities themselves.  Legislatures will need to recognize the advantages of sustaining flagship research universities and be willing to invest in them differently than in other institutions.  At the same time, legislators will need to recognize that for these universities to realize their potential, they will need to liberate them from many of the constraints that currently hobble their freedom of action.  This has already happened in a number of places like Virginia, Texas, Oregon, and elsewhere.  It may mean things like recruiting excellent non-resident students by offering them resident tuition rates, like the program between the Universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  It will require rethinking how universities should be accountable to their states, with different measures for different types of institutions. ..."

"It is essential that we cultivate a new public attitude toward universities, one more akin to that attitude that I suspect moved those courageous citizens of Boone County and the State of Missouri 170 years ago.  It was an attitude that looked at the long term, an attitude that trusted in the future, recognizing that the founding of university would have some immediate benefit for them, but that the real beneficiaries of their action would be their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  In a society driven by a consumer ethic of instant gratification, we are not inclined to think about the long term.  And neither are our political leaders.  We tend to look upon higher education as a commodity we purchase and whose utility should be immediate.  Thus, we are less inclined to invest in the humanities and the arts, which have the longer term benefit of educating citizens and enhancing the civilized discourse we need as a people, but which don’t necessarily translate into immediate employment or contribute to economic development.

"For a variety of obvious reasons, Americans have lost trust in many of our institutions and leadership; although universities still are seen as essential, they, too have been subject to many criticisms that have eroded public confidence.  Universities must be accountable; the public must believe that they use their resources wisely, as I believe they do.  The public must believe that our work is important and in the public interest.  But to succeed in their mission of open discovery, their effort to explore new vistas of knowledge, to explore new avenues of learning, universities require maximum degrees of freedom – freedom from unnecessary controls or processes that push them toward short term obsessions.  Academic freedom is the only framework in which innovation can flourish.  The freedom to inquire, debate, criticize, and speak truth to power is essential to the vitality of a university.  But the ability to exercise freedom requires trust, trust in people, trust in institutions, and trust in the future.  The public needs to understand the long, arduous journey to the acquisition of new knowledge, and trust in the ultimate benefit of the journey and its outcomes.  But those of us in universities must also do everything in our power to earn and justify that trust.

"In addition to trust, and perhaps dependent on a recovery of trust, if the great public good that our public universities represent is to be fully realized, Americans need restore a commitment to a common good.  If my measure of any public policy is solely how it will benefit me, and yours is the same, we will have lost a commitment to the common good, and with it, a common future.  If we are not called upon to make sacrifices for each other, especially in a time of crisis, we are less of a people, and those institutions, like universities, which are built for a common future, cannot flourish.  

"So, as we gather here today to celebrate the centennial of the University of Missouri’s recognition as a major national research and graduate university, let us recall those noble few who launched this institution on its path and those thousands who have carried it and continue to carry it forward, holding it as a public trust, obligated both to the past and to the future.  Let us recall their commitment to sustaining the common good and let us continue it."