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As Young moves to Washington, can he help pull U. into an elite club?

Published: Wednesday, April 27 2011 5:59 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — There are two sets of schools in the Pac-12, the new home of the University of Utah.

No, not the north and south divisions.

Eight of the 12 universities belong to an elite group of the 61 most highly regarded research schools in the country: the Association of American Universities. U. President Michael Young will head one of those eight when he moves to the University of Washington — a job he accepted this week.

Now some hope his influence may help the U. join the club.

When the U. and the University of Colorado were invited into the conference in June, they were described as academic peers of the existing Pac-12 schools.

"We are a great university and … only the seventh public university in the nation to receive a Nobel Prize," Young said at the announcement festivities. "The research and teaching arm of the university were important in this decision."

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott called the U. "a great fit on all levels," noting that the conference's universities had combined for more than 100 Nobel laureates.

Contacted this week, representatives of several Pac-12 schools were hesitant to express support for Utah's inclusion in the exclusive club.

A school cannot apply to AAU, but must be invited. As a private organization, AAU's deliberations are secret, though it does publish membership guidelines. Among the top factors are the breadth and quality of graduate programs, research funding levels and faculty membership in groups like the National Academy of Sciences.

AAU's membership committee meets irregularly, and any potential new invitees must be approved by a three-fourths vote of all member schools.

"It is very unclear that advocacy on the part of the Pac-12 leaders would have influence," said Lisa Lapin, spokeswoman for Stanford University, noting that AAU's criteria do not include membership in an athletic conference.

And some at the U. downplayed the importance of belonging to AAU.

"I don't think it really does a whole lot," said Paul Brinkman, the U.'s outgoing associate vice president for budget and planning. He doubts it would help much in winning grants or recruiting faculty.

Still, he said, as an AAU member, "It's nice who you rub shoulders with. … Prestige counts in higher education."

Young pushed during his tenure for the U. to join AAU. He asked Robert Newman, the U.'s humanities dean, to research the potential of the U.'s inclusion.

Newman called the selection process "a bit mysterious" and said the U. compares favorably with many current AAU members, including the universities of Colorado and Arizona.

"We have been making our case, not as a blatant campaign, but appropriately and in ways the AAU would consider professional," Newman said. "It seems clear we are among the group of universities the AAU has under consideration when its membership committee decides it is appropriate to expand."

Newman said AAU status would link the U. with the ability to influence Congress and "national thinking about future directions in higher education."

He said he hopes Young will advocate for the U. after his move to Washington.

"Having a champion for the U. among the AAU presidents certainly could elevate our prospects," Newman said. "Clearly, the progress made during the past six years and our inclusion in the Pac-12 can only help."

David Pershing, the U.'s senior vice president for academic affairs, said joining AAU would be desirable but not critical.

"To the public, it's not nearly as important as being invited to be part of the Pac-12," he said, adding that applications from states with Pac-12 schools have shot up. "The Pac-12 turned out to be far bigger than AAU would ever be."

He said the U. bolstered its AAU case during Young's tenure by building $1 billion in physical facilities, growing enrollment and increasing admission standards.

Pershing hopes not only Young and Washington, but all the Pac-12 schools, will advocate for the conference to add to its presence and influence in AAU.

"I certainly hope they would," he said. "Frankly, it's in their best interest."

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