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The importance of the Association of American Universities

Three days ago, if you had mentioned the AAU to me, my mind would have almost certainly jumped to the often-shady network of high school athletic teams that funnels star athletes to elite colleges. Now? Not so much, because as far as UConn is concerned, the most important AAU in its future could very well be the Association of American Universities.

That AAU, for the uninitiated, is a group of 62 universities (60 in the US, two in Canada), that works to address issues that large research institutions often run into, including funding for research and education/research policy. The group meets twice a year (including last weekend in Washington D.C., where a lot of this Big Ten talk accelerated) and membership is by invitation only. It is essentially an advocacy group that comes with the bonus of backing up your academic bona fides.

If you look at a list of AAU members, there are two important things you'll notice, at least for our purposes. First, UConn is not a member. Second, every Big Ten school is. Now, being an AAU member is not a requirement to join the Big Ten (Notre Dame is not a member), but it certainly can't hurt, and with or without the Big Ten, I think UConn could get there soon.

So why does this matter? Well, it seems to be a matter of "fit." The Big Ten and its members pride themselves on academics, and like I said above, being an AAU member provides cover. This makes UConn a less than ideal candidate to some Big Ten watchers, so if you look around the net, you'll see fans say things like this.

If we're being honest, we need to acknowledge that historically, the school has not been an academic powerhouse (thought it was never awful either). However, it has made huge gains in the past twenty years, most notably on the undergraduate level, but its graduate programs have also been improving. The more than $2 billion the state has put into the school for improvements is paying off. In addition, UConn president Michael Hogan has made increasing support and funding for graduate research a priority. Assuming the school follows through on that, it makes sense that UConn could merit an invitation sometime in the not-too-distant-future. As is, several of their peer schools are already AAU members, including some in the Big Ten (Iowa, Indiana, etc.).

If you'll allow me to wildly speculate though, I'd say this: First, UConn's reputation has improved enough so that although they're not part of the AAU, the Big Ten wouldn't be taking a huge hit by inviting us to join their party. Second, as some commentors pointed out yesterday, joining the Big Ten also means joining the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which would be a huge boon to UConn's growing grad programs, allowing them to be recognized on an even bigger level that much faster.

UConn may not be Michigan, but it is no slouch and it is improving. There are certainly many, many reasonable arguments to be made for why UConn would not be a good fit for the Big Ten, but I'm not sure the AAU is one of them.