Emails: Wisconsin and Michigan opposed Nebraska's AAU membership

2011-09-03T23:55:00Z 2011-09-07T10:30:08Z Emails: Wisconsin and Michigan opposed Nebraska's AAU membershipBy MITCH SMITH and KEVIN ABOUREZK / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

After endorsing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's entrance into the Big Ten Conference -- in part because of its academic strength -- leaders at the universities of Wisconsin and Michigan apparently helped oust UNL from an elite academic group, according to documents reviewed by the Journal Star.

Nebraska failed to garner the 21 votes it needed last April to remain in the Association of American Universities, a confederation of more than 60 top research institutions that collectively nets more than half of all federal research funds and awards more than half of the doctoral degrees in the nation. It was confirmed that UNL fell three votes short.

Emails and letters obtained by the Journal Star after a series of open-records requests indicate that Wisconsin and Michigan did not support UNL during its turbulent and unsuccessful AAU membership review earlier this year.

The emails and letters hint at dissent within the Big Ten and call into question the pretext on which UNL was invited to join it.

With every other Big Ten school holding AAU membership, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman told the Chicago Tribune in 2010, it was doubtful that UNL would have been invited to join the Big Ten had it not been an AAU member.

But emails suggest the leaders of two Big Ten schools -- Michigan and Wisconsin -- were among the 44 university presidents that didn't support keeping Nebraska in the AAU.

"We lost two Big Ten colleagues," Perlman wrote in an April 11 email to his UNL vice chancellors while attending an AAU gathering in Washington that ultimately resulted in UNL becoming the first school ever ousted from the AAU, of which Nebraska had been a member for more than a century.

Perlman was permitted to address AAU leaders before they voted on Nebraska's fate. At that point, both the AAU's membership review and executive committees had voted against Nebraska. But two-thirds of AAU's 63 members had to agree.

Perlman told the Journal Star his speech focused on the public arguments he made regarding the AAU's rankings that had labeled UNL as failing to meet the organization's research and academic standards. He took issue with the AAU's treatment of land-grant schools and universities without medical schools.

UNL is a land-grant university, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha is considered a separate entity for AAU purposes.

Perlman said the AAU unfairly devalues agricultural research -- part of the institutional mission of each land-grant university -- and skews its results in favor of universities with on-campus medical centers.

Land-grant institutions were established on public lands and charged with providing accessible education for students in agricultural and mechanical fields. Seven other Big Ten schools are land-grant universities, including Wisconsin. Three other Big Ten schools don't grant medical degrees, according to government data.

The emails show public diplomacy by UNL administrators and other Big Ten presidents during the review, but private derision of the AAU and its leaders.

Going into the AAU meeting, Perlman emailed his vice chancellors and said he thought UNL was two or three votes short of staving off removal. His speech went well, Perlman wrote, but the events turned sour after he was excused from the room while members deliberated in private.

Penn State University President Graham Spanier, a former UNL chancellor, told Perlman in an email that several private institutions argued against Nebraska's membership once Perlman left the room. Spanier thought Nebraska "might have lost a vote or two," Perlman wrote to his vice chancellors.

Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, leader of the Big Ten's lone private institution, expressed support for Perlman in a series of emails. Spanier and Schapiro declined to comment for this story.

Though messages from early on in the membership review show Perlman was hopeful, an April 11 email he sent to his vice chancellors shows he expected the worst after that meeting.  

"I am not optimistic," he wrote, before adding, "We lost two Big Ten colleagues -- Wisconsin and Michigan."

In a recent interview with the Journal Star, Perlman said he believed the leaders of Wisconsin and Michigan opposed UNL's membership in the AAU because of their apparent votes against the university while members of two AAU committees.

However, he said, he can't be sure how they cast their secret ballots in April.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, served on the AAU membership committee when it voted in October 2010 to recommend that UNL's membership be reviewed. Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, then chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, served on a separate AAU membership review committee, which unanimously recommended in April to end UNL's membership.

"It's not fair to say Wisconsin voted against Nebraska," Perlman told the Journal Star. "It's the president of Wisconsin, who is no longer the president of Wisconsin, and the president of Michigan."

Perlman said he didn't feel betrayed by the Wisconsin and Michigan administrators.

"I guess I was disappointed," he said.

However, he said, he respected their votes and doesn't think their votes contradicted their earlier decisions to accept UNL's entry into the Big Ten.

"I am prepared to believe that they, in good faith, believed that we were a good university to join the Big Ten and that in accordance with the membership criteria of the AAU we were not eligible to continue there," he said.

Will the lack of support for UNL to remain in the AAU by the Wisconsin and Michigan leaders fracture the unity of the Big Ten?

"I am not concerned at all," Perlman said. "We've been welcomed by every institution in the Big Ten. We've been welcomed by every president of the Big Ten.

"This is old news to us. We're moving forward."

Barbara McFadden Allen, executive director of the Big Ten's academic arm, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, would not comment for this story. Neither would Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. However, Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer Heppel said last spring that the AAU's decision would not hurt UNL's standing in the conference.

"Nebraska is a substantial academic institution," she said. "It was when its application to join the Big Ten Conference was unanimously approved by the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and it is today. The Big Ten Conference does not have control over other organizations' actions."

In the conference realignment scramble of 2010, the Big Ten cited Nebraska's athletic and academic credentials in making UNL its first new member in two decades. Delany and Perlman both said at the time Nebraska's AAU membership was a factor in the invitation.

Nine months before the AAU meeting, the Big Ten presidents unanimously voted to invite Nebraska. Wisconsin Chancellor Martin cited Nebraska's AAU membership as a reason for her vote in a July 2010 interview with the Wisconsin State Journal.

But despite months of congratulations and Big Ten welcome messages touting Nebraska's academics, Nebraska encountered resistance at the April meeting. AAU bigwigs were vocal in their disapproval of Nebraska, Perlman wrote in an email to his vice chancellors.

"The leadership is against us and they are exploiting every advantage," Perlman wrote.

The process clearly wore on Perlman and eroded his respect for the AAU. After University of Iowa President Sally Mason complimented his presentation and expressed her support, he replied, "If we lose, which I suspect we will, I will have to find an alternative for my biennial dose of arrogance."

'They probably didn't by the deadline'

Despite Perlman's hunch that UNL was about to be booted, the initial voting deadline of April 18 announced by AAU leaders came and went without a decision. Three days after that initial deadline, Perlman learned the AAU was continuing to solicit ballots from university presidents who hadn't voted.

Any abstentions counted in Nebraska's favor, and messages reveal that at least two presidents were traveling abroad and did not submit a ballot by the first deadline.

AAU Spokesman Barry Toiv said the perceived deadline was never a deadline at all. He said announcing a date simply was a tactic to speed up the process, but that the voting couldn't be finished until every president weighed in.

The process was both fair and complete, Toiv said.

Perlman disagreed, saying the deadline extension was a sign that Nebraska was being railroaded.

"It is preposterous that the announcement of a deadline as clearly as you announced was not intended to be a deadline after all," Perlman wrote in an April 23 email to AAU President Robert Berdahl. "This is one more instance where the process as defined and implemented has created the impression in my mind, and in the minds of others, that the leadership is determined to achieve a particular result regardless of the rules."

Perlman was even more blunt when Schapiro, Northwestern's president, emailed him after the results were announced.

"I am so sad," Schapiro wrote. "I really thought that they didn't have enough votes to do this."

Perlman replied, "They probably didn't by the (original) deadline."

Toiv declined to comment as to whether the AAU had the votes to kick out Nebraska on the original deadline. That's irrelevant, he said.

'We really needed ... AAU institutions'

When the Big Ten was looking for new members, Wisconsin Chancellor Martin knew the type of school she was looking for.

"My view was that we really needed to add institutions that were AAU universities," she told the Wisconsin State Journal in July 2010.

Martin, who left Wisconsin this summer and now is president of Amherst College in Massachusetts, then voted to invite Nebraska to the conference. That week, she told the Wisconsin State Journal it was a good move.

"I think this is a great thing for the Big Ten," Martin said. "I think it stabilizes things and enhances the league. I hope that our fans will feel great about it. It's a home run for the league in more ways than one."

But just months later, Martin reversed course. She was a member of the membership review committee that unanimously opposed Nebraska. Perlman's email to his vice chancellors makes it clear he wasn't expecting her support in the general vote.

Martin offered no explanation for the seemingly contradictory actions. While still employed at Wisconsin, Martin declined to speak with the Journal Star. The Journal Star then requested emails from Wisconsin concerning her decision, but was denied access to those records on the grounds that releasing them "would have a significant chilling effect" on Wisconsin administrators' participation in the AAU.

When contacted last week through a spokesman at Amherst, Martin again declined to comment or clarify her position.

Wisconsin's interim chancellor, David Ward, also declined to speak with the Journal Star.

Martin told the State Journal in July 2010 that while athletics was the primary consideration in adding Nebraska, university leaders weighed academics in deciding whether UNL would fit into the conference's academic consortium.

"I think it would lack integrity to pretend that academics drove the process," Martin told the newspaper, "but for the chancellors, presidents and provosts who were also consulted about (Committee on Institutional Cooperation) membership, academic standing makes a huge difference."

A message Martin released July 1, the day Nebraska officially joined the Big Ten, congratulated UNL.

"Welcome to the Big Ten," she wrote. "Go Big Red -- both of us!"

When contacted through a spokesperson this spring, Michigan President Coleman declined to reveal her AAU vote. She again declined the chance to speak with the Journal Star last week.

Unlike Martin, Coleman was not a vocal public advocate of Nebraska's admittance to the Big Ten, but she did vote in favor of Nebraska's invitation.

Perlman told the Journal Star he considered Coleman a personal friend. Coleman is on the AAU membership committee that first recommended Nebraska for a review.

Dissent in the Big Ten

Though not all Big Ten leaders sided with Nebraska, Perlman's emails show support from several conference administrators.

Penn State's Spanier, Ohio State President Gordon Gee and Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon provided frequent advice on how to navigate the review.

Northwestern's Schapiro, Iowa's Mason and University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks also expressed their support.

No correspondence was uncovered between Perlman and the leaders of the University of Illinois, Indiana University or Purdue University, though records suggest they favored Nebraska's inclusion in the AAU. Like every institution the Journal Star contacted, they declined to reveal their vote.

Spanier, Simon and Mason also declined to speak with the Journal Star. Bruininks since has left Minnesota. His successor declined to comment, as well.

Perlman said in an April 29 email to faculty that all Big 12 schools that are AAU members -- Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Texas A&M -- supported Nebraska. Colorado was a Big 12 member when the letter was written.

Other emails obtained by the Journal Star suggest Syracuse University President Nancy Cantor might have supported Nebraska. Syracuse was identified along with Nebraska for membership review, but the private school in New York opted to bow out voluntarily rather than go to a vote like Nebraska. UNL and Syracuse both were voting AAU members at the April meeting.

While the AAU vote results were not made public, the emails and statements made by several officials suggest that UNL had nine Big Ten supporters and six Big 12 supporters. Nebraska voted for itself, bringing the total to 16 supporting UNL's continued membership in the AAU.

If Syracuse voted to retain Nebraska, that would make 17 supportive votes.

While it's impossible to be certain how each president cast his or her school's secret ballot, 18 AAU leaders voted to continue Nebraska's membership.

Aside from Wisconsin and Michigan, Perlman's emails name only one other potential no-vote: Stanford University President John Hennessy.

"Of course Hennessy was a strong advocate for kicking us out of AAU!" Perlman wrote in a June email to a UNL alumnus.

Hennessy declined to comment.

'An uprising akin to which took place in Egypt'

Gee and Spanier appeared to become Perlman's sounding board and confidants. More than once, Perlman sought their feedback on messages he had sent or was considering sending to an AAU leader. They returned supportive messages to Perlman, and Gee's replies often contained scathing criticism of the AAU.

But documents reveal that Perlman caught the AAU's ire when he alerted other Big Ten presidents to Nebraska's membership review. Perlman sent a copy to every Big Ten president of the same packet he prepared for the AAU review committee, along with a letter explaining the situation.

Berdahl, the AAU president, criticized Perlman in a tersely worded letter for publicizing the review.

"Perhaps we have not made it sufficiently clear that to protect the institutions involved, we have considered this stage of the process to be confidential," Berdahl wrote.

Berdahl suggested the UNL chancellor was looking for supportive Big Ten leaders to lobby other college presidents.

Perlman then sent another letter to his Big Ten colleagues and Berdahl, rejecting the implication he was lobbying and instead saying he owed an explanation of what was happening to the presidents who had just invited UNL to the Big Ten.

But in April, Gee implied in a letter to Perlman that he was campaigning on Nebraska's behalf.

"Certainly, we are working the phone lines," Gee wrote. "You will, or I will, become the new president of the anti-AAU, if necessary."

In a separate letter, the Ohio State leader suggested that he and Perlman "form an uprising akin to which took place in Egypt."

In an interview with the Journal Star last week, Gee said, "Those comments were made in the heat of battle and probably I would temper them."

Gee, who served as chairman of the AAU in the late 1990s, said the AAU is a very important credential. But, he said, its members need to embrace the agricultural research that's central to land-grant schools -- that's why he campaigned so hard for Nebraska.

'This is silly, screw them'

More than four months have passed since that meeting in Washington. Nebraska's ouster made national news, and more than one football message board suggested the Big Ten reconsider adding the Huskers.

But life moved on at UNL. The school became an official member of the Big Ten and its academic arm, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, on July 1.

Nebraska's first Big Ten Conference football game is next month -- at Wisconsin. The Huskers will visit Michigan in November.

In emails and interviews, Perlman described the process as "embarrassing" for Nebraska. In one message, he likened an admiralship in the Nebraska Navy -- a tongue-in-cheek honorary society whose members are appointed by the governor -- to AAU membership.

"It's an honor to have it, but once you get it, you realize it doesn't much matter for anything important," he wrote to University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken in May, "but you'd be really unhappy and embarrassed if the governor took it away."

Perlman and his fellow administrators also worried about how the AAU vote affected faculty morale. Internal emails show debate about how to present the news to professors.

"We may need to find ways to overtly signal that this is just a ridiculous blip and we're fine," wrote Ellen Weissinger, UNL's senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, in an April 30 email. "My frame would be, this is silly, screw them, get back to what we were doing."

Reach Mitch Smith at 402-473-2655 or msmith@journalstar.com. Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

 

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