The last university admitted into the 62-member Association of American Universities was Texas A&M in 2001. In that year, according to the Center for Measuring University Performance, Texas A&M ranked in the top 25 in three AAU-like criteria and in the top 50 in four others.

Membership in the AAU came only three years after Texas A&M announced its intention to become one of the 10 best universities in the country by 2020. That kind of plan and follow through are among the many strategic plans WSU administrators have been studying this fall as they work to move WSU into the top tier of public research universities.

The effort to gain AAU-like status has gained energy and momentum under the leadership of President Elson S. Floyd, said Larry James, WSU’s associate executive vice president. Efforts are building on the work of two key committees that began meeting in 2006. One identified areas of preeminence within WSU research and graduate programs, and the other looked specifically at AAU criteria.

 Using selected measures published by the Center for Measuring University Performance, one group discovered that, while WSU cracked the rankings for the top 50 public research universities in three categories (endowment assets, National Academy members and prestigious faculty awards), it lagged behind in seven other categories, particularly research funding, annual giving, citations and National Merit scholars.

Areas of preeminence
In one category, postdoctoral scholars, WSU needs to add just three people to be in the top 50. Other criteria will be more difficult to attain. For instance, to reach AAU levels in federal research funding, WSU would have to increase federal grants by $39 million annually to reach the top 50 and by $132 million to reach the top 25.

While the AAU criteria, and WSU’s relative ranking, is fairly straightforward, James said, identifying WSU’s areas of research preeminence was an arduous process. The committee worked though voluminous information in an effort to be rigorous and comprehensive.

The committee ultimately identified the following areas: advanced materials technology; chromosome biology and the science of reproduction; clean energy technology; infectious diseases and the human-animal interface; molecular plant science and genetics; and the brain, behavior and performance.

Prioritization next
These committee recommendations are providing a philosophical foundation for the revised university strategic plan, as well as the two-phase academic program priority process. In phase one, a task force has been formed to determine criteria and a process for prioritizing academic programs. In phase two, another task force will be charged with applying the criteria across all academic units.

A parallel process for evaluating non-academic support units is being developed separately, headed by Greg Royer, vice president for business and finance.

The criteria and process are expected to be determined by the end of December and the program reviews will begin in the spring.

According to James, those reviews are the next step in a process that began in 2005 when WSU began an in-depth study of graduate education. In 2006 two critical reports were issued — the WSU Graduate Education Commission report, an internal review, and the Yardley Report, an external review.

“A key recommendation of both groups was to focus our research and graduate education,” James said. “That’s when the whole process began to identify areas of preeminence.”

Looking to the future
This internal review process is being mirrored at universities across the country, either in support of a capital campaign, as part of an accreditation process or simply as a way to focus energy and resources. With plenty of material to look at, James has been going through dozens, if not dozens of dozens, of university mission statements and strategic plans.

Many of the documents are emphasizing AAU-like attributes, he said, but some are attempting to look at the broader picture of what a truly world-class university will look like in 25 years. Those attributes may be the same as the AAU criteria, but not necessarily.

Hockey legend Wayne Gretsky once said the secret to his success wasn’t skating to where the puck is, James said, but skating to where it will be.

What is the AAU?
Founded in 1900 with 12 charter members, the Association of American Universities has grown to 60 American universities and two Canadian universities. Membership is by invitation only, and the most recent addition was Texas A&M in 2001. For a complete listing, go ONLINE @ www.aau.edu/aau/members.html.