All colleges great and small know their place

November 8, 1996

LATE last month, the University of California at Davis, a 24,000-student campus which made its name fostering the California wine industry, got an unusual offer. The president of the Association of American Universities, Cornelius Pings, called chancellor Larry Vanderhoef to say the AAU was inviting Davis to join, writes Tim Cornwell.

The AAU's dues are $40,000 a year. It is a 62-member organisation little known outside the world of United States higher education, which has a plethora of university associations, some maintaining large Washington lobbying operations. UC Davis is already a member of several.

The chancellor's immediate response? To issue a press release celebrating Davis' admission to the AAU and send a congratulatory letter to faculty members. Arguably, he wrote, this is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a research university. Chances are, though, that before now you may not have heard of this low profile but high influence organisation. The AAU's unique feature, as Mr Vanderhoef said in an interview, is that it is, for better or worse, elitist. It was founded in 1900 with 14 members, all research universities and among them the biggest names in the country.

It admits new ones occasionally, through a secretive finders committee and a secret ballot in which at least three-quarters of members must approve. There are now just 62, including UC Davis and UC Irvine, both invited to join this year.

Among US universities, observes Barry Lyon of Baylor University, the elite schools have been elite for generations. The famous ivy league is limited to eight members; the big ten, the prestigious athletic league in the Mid West, is actually 11, but is unlikely to get much larger.

The top private colleges informally occupy a kind of billion dollar club, made up of those that have endowments of a billion dollars or more. They have the ability to attract and give scholarships to the brightest, and are besieged by seven or eight applicants for each place. Becoming a member of the AAU confirms a university's place in the front ranks.

Clark University, a lesser-known private New England college, was a founding member of AAU, along with such weighty names as Yale, Harvard, and Brown; its president, Richard Traina, joins their presidents at cosy twice-yearly meetings. "It's meant a great deal to us over 96 years," he said.

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