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Association of American Universities


The Association of American Universities (AAU) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing sixty-one of the most prestigious North American higher education institutions, fifty-nine in the United States and two in Canada. Membership is by invitation only, with an approximately 50 percent split between public and private institutions. A majority of 75 percent of the current members must approve an institution before it can become a new member.

The member institutions have major interests in quality research and graduate and professional education. AAU represents those interests nationally and provides its members with a forum to discuss common institutional issues. Two AAU meetings are held annually, with one meeting taking place on a member's campus and one held in Washington, D.C.

AAU's internal structure includes an Executive Committee from the membership; a Council on Federal Relations, consisting of senior officers from the institutions whose responsibilities include federal relations for their own campuses; the Association of Graduate Schools, composed of the graduate deans of the AAU institutions; and a Public Affairs Network whose participants are public affairs officers of the AAU institutions.

Each year AAU institutions award about half of the doctorates given in the United States, one-fifth of the master's degrees, and one-sixth of the bachelor's degrees. According to the association's website, AAU member institutions contribute more than half of higher education's research and development performance and receive around 60 percent of the federal funds for academic research.


The AAU was formed in 1900, during a meeting at the University of Chicago of fourteen representatives of the major institutions of higher education granting doctoral degrees. The American system was fragmented, and standards for graduate study were low. Diploma mills abounded, and European institutions' opinion of American higher education was unflattering. The purposes of the Chicago meeting were to find means to raise the standards of higher education institutions, increase the value of American graduate degrees, protect the term university from indiscriminate use, and gain the respect of European universities. The result of the meeting was the creation of the Association of American Universities.

By 1914 the association was acting as an accrediting agency that provided European institutions with lists of approved colleges whose graduates were deemed capable of advanced graduate work. Graduate deans did site visits, and certified colleges were included in the "AAU Accepted List."

Although the AAU was essentially a presidents' organization, the focus on accreditation resulted in drastic losses of attendance by presidents. AAU had become a deans' forum. In 1949, in order to return the association to the presidents, and as a result of the deans' desire to expand the accreditation service, AAU dropped accreditation entirely. It split into two organizations, one a presidential organization keeping the name Association of American Universities, and the second taking on the name the Association of Graduate Schools in the AAU.

For a good part of its life, AAU's federal affairs activities were minimal. However, World War II brought AAU and its institutions into a closer relationship with the federal government, and in the postwar period the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) meant large sums of research funds were directed to AAU institutions. The relationship with the federal government became more complicated and demanding, and AAU established a permanent office in Washington, D.C. However, AAU's reluctance to participate in lobbying continued, and it was not until 1977 that the association named its own president for the Washington office. This was followed in 1978 with the naming of a director of federal relations and the development of a full-time staff that dealt with federal issues.

By the 1980s AAU had expanded its activities to include an interest in foreign languages and area studies, the organization of a clearinghouse on corporate–university research partnerships, and the collection of data on graduate education. AAU joined other Washington higher education associations in lobbying on such issues as student financial aid, federal support of the humanities, tax policies affecting higher education, and intercollegiate athletic activities.

As university–industry relationships became closer in the U.S. struggle to remain economically competitive, AAU became deeply involved in the problems that emerged. Three issues in particular concerned AAU: conflicts of interest and research misconduct, indirect research costs disagreements, and academic earmarking.

Robert M. Rosenzweig's 1998 study revealed how the increasing complexity of university–industry research relationships generated conflict-of-interest questions. For example, some commercial clients of universities required the institutions to prevent or postpone publication of research results–a violation of academic values. In response to this and other issues related to university–industry relations, AAU set up a clearinghouse to allow its members to share their policies. Several highly publicized cases of alleged misconduct in research in the late 1980s combined with the probability of more such cases led AAU to put together and distribute workable guidelines for institutions.

No issue was more contentious and difficult for AAU to deal with than that of earmarking–the practice by an institution of directly soliciting influential members of Congress for research dollars, thus avoiding the conventional practice of competitive peer review as a basis for being awarded federal funding. This issue seriously divided AAU's membership. Peer review was a well-established and legitimate method for determining who would receive federal research awards and reflected university values of rewarding merit. But earmarking proved attractive to some colleges, universities, and members of Congress, for it provided direct aid to individual institutions and perhaps to the local economies. The issue was deeply divisive, and the association was never able to reach a satisfactory solution. Earmarking increased greatly in the 1990s and into the 2000s.

AAU and its members have had a long history of contentious negotiations with the federal government concerning indirect costs, the reimbursement of facilities, and administrative costs of federally funded research. Indirect costs have been an issue since the 1930s. Determining indirect costs is complicated. The issue involves disputes in which government tends to see universities as demanding exorbitant reimbursement for overhead costs, while universities contend that the charges are reasonable and necessary to take account of administrative and facility costs to the institutions.

AAU is an association member of the American Council on Education (ACE) and participates in and coordinates activities with the informal group of Washington Associations, often called the Big Six. AAU also has affiliations with the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), the Association of American Medical Schools (AAMS), and the Council on Government Relations (CGR).


HAWKINS, HUGH. 1992. Banding Together: The Rise of National Associations in American Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

ROSENZWEIG, ROBERT M. 1998. The Political University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.





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