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UNL chancellor looking forward after AAU expulsion
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UNL chancellor looking forward after AAU expulsion

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When Carol Krashen talks to her students about college opportunities, she doesn't mention whether a particular school is part of the American Association of Universities. That's because she had never heard of the association.

She has heard of the Big Ten Conference, however. And with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln set to join the Big Ten in less than two months, Krashen has noticed greater interest in UNL among students at Naperville North High School near Chicago.

"Now that Nebraska has been added to that conference, I believe they will be more visible," said Krashen, college and career center coordinator at Naperville North. "I'm hopeful that our students will continue to explore all of their options."

While UNL's recent expulsion from the Association of American Universities may affect the university's reputation, it's had little, if any, effect on recruiting new students to Nebraska, according to a UNL recruiter and Krashen.

University leaders say they expect little immediate impact from the association's decision. In fact, except for UNL's invitation to join the Big Ten, Chancellor Harvey Perlman said he couldn't identify any specific benefit the university has gained as a result of being an AAU member.

However, in documents sent to the association requesting that UNL be allowed to remain a member, Perlman said expulsion would hurt the university's efforts to improve its research and academic programs.

"As I know you must realize, being dropped from membership would have a far greater impact on an institution than not being invited to membership in the first place," he wrote to AAU membership review committee chairman Larry Faulkner, former president of the University of Texas at Austin, on Nov. 8. "We believe that this possibility places at risk much of the progress the university has experienced during the last decade." During that decade, UNL's percentage growth in terms of federal research funds was among the best in the AAU.

In the week since announcing the AAU's decision, Perlman seems to have shunted aside the concern about a negative AAU vote reflecting negatively on UNL.

"I am through worrying about AAU," Perlman said in an email exchange of questions and answers with the Journal Star.

With no avenue left to appeal the decision, the process that led to UNL losing its membership has left a sour taste in Perlman's mouth and has led to calls for the AAU to review its membership policies.

"I believe that the unfortunate turmoil surrounding Nebraska's situation will lead to a reevaluation of AAU membership policies," said Graham Spanier, president of Penn State University and of the Big Ten's academic arm, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

Spanier, who was UNL chancellor from 1992 to 1996, said the AAU decision would not affect UNL's standing in the Big Ten or the CIC.

The process that led to UNL's expulsion from the AAU began in October, when the association's membership committee recommended a review of UNL's membership, noting UNL's position at the bottom of the association's membership rankings. On April 7, the AAU review committee recommended ending UNL's membership.

A two-thirds majority of the AAU's members -- or 42 members -- was needed to approve ending UNL's membership. Forty-four members voted to end it.

Perlman, noting that no response from an AAU member would have been considered a vote for retaining UNL, contends the AAU extended its solicitation of votes past the announced deadline. Robert Berdahl, AAU president, says the AAU never set a deadline for accepting votes in the interest of allowing all members a chance to vote.

"This is one more instance where the process as defined and implemented has created the impression in my mind, and in the mind of others, that the leadership is determined to achieve a particular result regardless of the rules," Perlman wrote to Berdahl. "When the details of this process become public, it will hardly serve the reputation or credibility of the AAU."

"This process has been difficult and, frankly, painful, for the association and its members," Berdahl responded. "The association followed its policy and process in conducting this review and in carrying out this decision."

Though UNL, which joined the AAU in 1909, fought off a similar threat in 2000, it is the first time the association has voted to end an institution's membership.

For more than a decade, UNL had been listed at the bottom of the organization's rankings, based on research expenditures, the number of faculty belonging to the National Academies of sciences and engineering and the Institute of Medicine, specified faculty awards and citations.

Perlman said earlier that the AAU's criteria were unfair, in part, because universities with medical centers gained ranking points from research expenditures at those centers. The University of Nebraska's flagship university -- UNL -- and its medical center -- UNMC -- are administered separately. Had research at UNMC been counted with UNL's, Nebraska would have ranked 49th among AAU institutions, according to materials presented by UNL to the AAU review committee.

In his email exchange with the Journal Star, Perlman said the AAU's decision doesn't justify integrating NU's flagship and medical campuses.

However, the president-elect of the UNL Faculty Senate said last week that faculty members would begin looking at ways for UNL to be allowed to include research at other campuses for the purpose of AAU's ranking system.

Mathias Schubert, a university physicist and engineer, said UNL's growth in research, teaching, service and extension justifies its place in the AAU. He said the university's expulsion from a group of the top 63 research universities is "consequential" and "should be carefully reviewed because several of our peer institutions are members."

"We have gained great momentum as an up and coming research institution and newest member of the Big Ten, and not being a member of the AAU is not a positive prospect," he said. "The Faculty Senate will examine more closely what this may mean for us and how we can address it at UNL."

In response to one of several Journal Star questions emailed to Perlman, the chancellor said the AAU's decision "will have no effect on our plans, our priorities or our progress. We are not expending any additional energy worrying about the AAU. We will continue our efforts to continue the momentum we have achieved in the last 10 years as a globally engaged research university serving the people of Nebraska."

Asked whether the decision has hurt UNL's national image, Perlman said, "In the short term, it's embarrassing, again because of how folks may interpret it. We will continue our efforts to highlight the extraordinary progress and quality that exists here."

The Journal Star also asked: If you were to do some sort of image campaign, what would you like the rest of the nation to think about UNL? Does UNL have anything to prove?

Perlman's response: "Yes, we have something to prove. We have had something to prove for the last decade. That a relatively small comprehensive research and land-grant university with a talented faculty can make a difference in its state, the nation and the world. We have already proven that. It did not depend on AAU."

As reverberations from the AAU decision quieted, Perlman had greater concerns on his mind: A few blocks away, the Legislature was debating the state budget.

A proposed amendment that would have eliminated $25 million in state funds to kick start Innovation Campus was easily voted down. And Perlman is confident the AAU vote will not affect the research campus. "No private sector company I know of would think that AAU membership, rather than the capacity of the university, is important in their business decisions," the chancellor said.

But compared to the "short-term setback" of the AAU decision, "the budget cuts continue to do long-term damage to the university."

Meanwhile, Amber Hunter, UNL associate dean of admissions, said she hadn't heard of any students expressing concern about the AAU decision.

"Most students were not aware we were a member of the AAU or understand the membership," she said. "I don't believe this will affect us."

Perlman's attention at week's end was focused on three commencement ceremonies -- baccalaureate, post-graduate and Law College. Each ceremony had its own guest speaker, including Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, at the Law College ceremony.

But had Perlman himself addressed the graduates, what would he have told them? His answer:

"You've had a great education at a great university. You can compete with the graduates of any university as your predecessors have done. Now, go conquer the world."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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