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History repeating

As Mizzou marks 100 years in the AAU, flagship universities seek support

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: Oct. 30, 2008
Chancellor Brady J. Deaton and AAU President Robert Berdahl

Chancellor Brady Deaton and Association of American Universities President Robert Berdahl celebrate the centennial anniversary of Mizzou's AAU menbership in the Bond Life Sciences Center.

They say a little competition is healthy. If so, American higher education should be in the pink. It’s a health kick that goes back more than a century and now could get a boost.

In the late 1800s U.S. graduate schools could get no respect. Universities here were considered inferior to their European counterparts, and top U.S. students hopped across the pond to earn graduate degrees. To end that trend, the presidents of 14 U.S. schools formed the Association of American Universities (AAU), standardizing graduate education, garnering research funding and elevating the status of U.S. higher education. The University of Missouri joined in 1908, eight years after the AAU’s founding, and is now one of 62 members.

Precarious pinnacle

In 2008 U.S. universities dominate. They account for 17 of the top 20 schools in the Academic Ranking of World Universities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. But a combination of shifting values and international competition — this time from Asia and the Middle East — brings higher ed full circle and now threatens to usurp major U.S. public research institutions, says AAU President Robert Berdahl, former chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley.

Our nation, he says, is due for a major attitude adjustment.

“The competitive advantage the United States currently enjoys is obvious, but retaining it should not be taken for granted,” Berdahl told a crowd celebrating the centennial anniversary of MU’s AAU membership on campus this week. “While it may take several decades to build a world-class research university, it takes much less time to destroy one by neglect.”

American universities had their heyday in the 1960s, Berdahl says. Baby boomers were college age, creating a critical mass in enrollment. Inflation was low, and tuition was affordable. Funding for universities quadrupled, and the federal government invested heavily in research.

Since then, state funding for higher education has plummeted, tuition has doubled, and major flagship research universities struggle to get support.

What happened?

The priority shuffle

The main change in our education culture, Berdahl says, is that Americans now see higher education and university-level research as a benefit not for the nation but for the individual.

“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,” Berdahl says. “We tend to look upon higher education as a commodity we purchase, whose utility should be immediate.”

Other factors Berdhal identifies:

  • Fund-suckers. Universities offer perks to attract students, and the federal government, through legislation such as the Higher Education Authorization Act, requires costly data-gathering and regulation compliance, depleting money for research and education.
  • Hidden costs. Indirect costs of federally funded research, such as administration and facilities, hinder progress.
  • Demographic changes. As baby boomers age, the ratio of workers and students to retirees shifts, and fewer people make public education a priority.
  • Spreading it around. State and federal government funds are more evenly distributed among all types of schools, reducing support for flagship research universities.

Why we should care

Berdahl says the potential demise of major public land-grant research universities like Mizzou affects the masses — not just the universities — influencing everything from the environment to the economy on a global scale.


  • Economy. Our national knowledge-based economy requires more research and talent than private institutions alone can produce.
  • Regional support. Most private research universities are on the coasts; public universities help sustain economic vitality in the Midwest.
  • Standards. Flagship public universities set standards for other public colleges and universities.
  • Professors. The largest percentage of faculty at all U.S. schools received graduate training at public flagship universities.
  • Research. Broad-based interdisciplinary research needed to solve current global problems (climate change, terrorism, infectious diseases, economic collapse) happens at land-grant universities.
  • Competition. Flagship schools create competition with other universities, including private institutions, that boosts the quality of education across the board.
While nations such as China, India and Germany amp up university education and research funding, U.S. institutions again face stiff international competition.  But if the AAU has its way,  the nation could see a history-making comeback.

Read more in:  On CampusBusiness, Law & PoliticsEducation

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Last updated: June 6, 2013