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The Big Ten should be open to non-AAU universities under the right circumstances

AAU Membership is valuable but should not serve as a gatekeeper.

2021 Big Ten Football Media Day Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Big Ten’s academic boastfulness certainly bothers those outside of the Big Ten, but the pride in academics is certainly not without merit.

As a conference, the Big Ten membership consists of an elite private institution in Northwestern and several public universities that can be considered ‘Public Ivies’ (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana).

Even the schools not considered Public Ivies (Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers) have a complex mix of large undergrad population, law school, hospital-based medical school, engineering school, or veterinary school that pumps out large numbers of well-paid graduates and creates an economic engine for the state and surrounding region.

If you look at what parts of the rust belt have thrived in the region’s post-industrial era, they are the areas with large universities, such as Ann Arbor, Columbus, Chicago, Iowa City, Lansing and Madison. In addition, with population loss in the Big Ten’s region over the last 30 to 40 years, keeping these rust belt economic engines alive with out-of-state students from other regions becomes important.

Unfortunately, out-of-state tuition is expensive, so getting a family in the New York City suburbs or Washington, D.C. suburbs to cut checks for out-of-state tuition requires a certain belief that the money is going toward a prestigious or somewhat prestigious academic experience.

It’s clear: Academics are important to the Big Ten and with good reason.

Now, one important component of the Big Ten’s public posturing regarding academics — that legitimately makes Big Ten universities thriving economic engines — is the research money that comes in from outside sources. Along with tuition, this helps money gravitate toward a university.

This is where the American Association of Universities (AAU) comes into play.

What is the AAU?

AAU member universities — 64 in the United States and two in Canada — are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to scientific progress, economic development, security, and well-being.

Frankly speaking, the AAU serves as a credentialing mechanism for the universities that attract adequate sums of research dollars.

Like most credentialing mechanisms, it’s probably inherently worthless and arbitrary, but we need signals to differentiate ourselves from others and the AAU allows for differentiation. This differentiation helps attract better faculty, push the academic research feedback mechanism in a positive direction, and keep the much-needed economic engines alive. This is healthy self-preservation.

Nearly as important as research money, this differentiation of AAU membership means that a family in Rye, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; or Bethesda, Maryland is more likely to write an out-of-state tuition check for their kin to go to school at Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana over a non-AAU university like Kansas State, Oklahoma State, or Mississippi State.

With mimetic desire being what it is, more families in affluent suburbs end up writing checks to Big Ten universities. This confluence of factors, along with success in athletics, has allowed the Big Ten to thrive at a time where its natural geographic region has suffered.

As luck and hard work would have it, all but one (Nebraska) Big Ten university is a member of the AAU and that one university was a member when admitted so the Big Ten can always say that they only admit AAU universities into this prestigious affiliation of universities.

Nonetheless, while valuable to the Big Ten, AAU membership should not serve as gatekeeper for admission into the conference.

The Familiar Narrative sets in

Last week, as new broke of a courtship between the SEC and Texas-Oklahoma, a familiar outdated narrative from the Big Ten crept into the discourse: Oklahoma would have entertained a move to the Big Ten but the conference said no because of AAU Membership or lack thereof.

This could be sour grapes from a conference that has everything a conference could ever want — except, of course, being recognized as the top football league.

Or, there could be some truth to this.

When the narrative is only shared in message boards or text message threads, we can write it off as sour grapes, but when those with blue check marks and ESPN affiliation start repeating the narrative, then it’s likely coming from the conference office or university administrators.

Did the Big Ten really tell Oklahoma no???????

Unlikely, because Oklahoma never applied for official membership and there was never an application to reject.

But, as Oklahoma weighed its options, the Big Ten could very well have told them to look elsewhere guaranteeing that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a realignment unicorn was immediately out the window. The fact the Big Ten let the media know Oklahoma’s AAU status precluded them from Big Ten membership is, in my opinion, very troubling.

AAU Membership should be a criteria among several others for entry into the Big Ten but not a gatekeeper. If it did reject Oklahoma, the Big Ten missed out one of the greatest coups in college sports history in having the bluest of college football blue bloods join its ranks.

To be clear, I am not arguing that the Big Ten should make a habit of admitting non-AAU universities and disrupting the reputation it’s spent a century cultivating.

There is value in being choosey.

And to be fair, Adam Rittenberg clarified that Notre Dame applies to the Big Ten’s AAU rule.

However, Notre Dame should not be the only exception.

Once in a while, however, an opportunity comes along where more exceptions need to be made, and the University of Oklahoma, due its proud football tradition and current powerhouse status, is another one of these exceptions.

On that note, below is a list of universities (if they were ever to look around for another conference), not in the AAU, for which the Big Ten should create an exception:

  • University of Georgia
  • University of Alabama
  • University of Tennessee
  • University of Kentucky
  • LSU
  • Auburn University
  • University of Notre Dame
  • University of Oklahoma
  • Clemson University
  • Florida State University
  • University of Miami (FL)