This week, Kansas State University issued a press release announcing the school's upgrade to the "highest research activity" (or Carnegie I) category for doctoral universities in the 2015 update to the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education. The upgrade puts Kansas State on par with several peer institutions in the region, including Iowa State and the Universities of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The "highest research activity" category also includes 57 of the 65 universities in Power 5 conferences.
The classifications are updated every five years, so Kansas State has made a lot of progress since 2010. This 2010 open letter from university president Kirk Schulz puts things in context. Since 2010, Kansas State has received over $100 million in competitive research funds from USAID and has also built several strategic academic-industry partnerships to add to research revenue.
The NBAF and the university's Biosecurity Research Institute should keep the research pipeline going well into the future.
What does it all mean then?
Improving the university's research profile is a stated goal of the university's 2025 Strategic Plan, so this was an important milestone. But in the larger scheme of things, it doesn't mean much. The main goal of the Carnegie Classification is to group all post-secondary educational institutions in the country in a way that recognizes their contributions in six key areas: instructional programs (undergraduate and graduate), enrollment, undergraduate profile, school size and setting, Basically, the Carnegie Classification provides a snapshot of each institution over a five-year period.
It is not, however, a ranking system, so an upgrade to "highest research activity" is a change in status, but not exactly an accolade or reward.
But what about the AAU?
Membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU, which weirdly also includes two Canadian universities) is the elephant in the room here. An upgrade in the Carnegie Classification will not necessarily be an open door to membership, but it could be a small step in that direction.
AAU membership is a tricky business though. There are 108 institutions in the "highest research activity" category, but only 62 are in the AAU. Moreover, the most important criterion for membership in the AAU is competitive research activity, which tends to exclude a significant proportion of research dollars that are allocated to land grant institutions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That doesn't mean it's impossible for a land grant school to become a member of the AAU. Several land grant schools, including some that have no medical school, are member institutions. Iowa State is probably the best example. The school's research is so well-regarded that it became a member of the AAU in 1958, before Colorado (1961), UCLA (1974), or Texas A&M (2001).
Kansas State may well be able to offset USDA contributions with competitive research dollars, but that's not the sole criteria for membership. The AAU's membership rules use the number of faculty memberships in the National Academy of Sciences as shorthand for overall faculty quality. Kansas State currently has zero faculty in the NAS. In contrast, Kansas has two professors in the NAS; the University of Texas has 42(!). AAU "insiders" suggest that new members will need at least five NAS members on the faculty. That's a pretty high bar, and I'm not sure Kansas State can actually reach those levels in the near future.
The AAU has also publicly stated a desire to remain small, and there is (at least presently) little political will to add more institutions.
Why does this even matter?
It's true that we're all sports fans, and unless we're being dishonest and Big Ten-ishly smug about it, we know that academics are not really relevant to college sports. But academics seem to matter for realignment, even if nobody can point to a solid rationale for this. For example, in a recent article in The Oklahoman, Berry Tramel suggested Oklahoma would absolutely jump at the chance to move to the Big Ten if invited, and largely for the impact on its academics and membership in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. Take from that what you will. I'm pretty sure Kansas State would do the same.
It doesn't help that the Big 12's academic profile puts it dead last among Power 5 conferences. Not only does the Big 12 have the fewest schools overall, it has the fewest "highest research activity" schools (5) and the fewest AAU members (3). Notably, all four institutions that left the Big 12 are in the top Carnegie category, and all four were also in the AAU. (Nebraska is no longer an AAU member, being voted out of the organization shortly after joining the Big Ten.) In other words, the Big 12 lost more than just numbers when those teams left.
With the notable exception of Texas, none of the current members of the Big 12 are attractive candidates for realignment, and that reduces the overall desirability of the conference. This may be a good thing, but it's probably a bad thing.
The Big 12 could just expand to add members, of course. Academics may not move the needle much in that regard. The most attractive candidates at this point are BYU, Boise State, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Connecticut. Of these, only Cincinnati and Connecticut are in the highest Carnegie category, and none are in the AAU. It's worth noting, however, that the two schools with interest in the Big 12 and an impressive academic profile are Houston and Colorado State, both "highest research activity" schools, and both considered on the bubble for AAU membership.
So, congratulations to Kansas State on making it to the upper tier of the Big 12 in both sports and academics! But we still have a long way to go.