The Catholic University of America has dropped out of an elite association of research universities it helped found more than a century ago, prompted by concerns it can no longer keep up with the pace of major scientific research set by the group's larger institutions.
The college in Northeast Washington will lose little more than bragging rights by leaving the Association of American Universities, an influential lobbying and support network whose members include Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Catholic was the only college in the District to belong to the AAU and the only church-controlled member.
But the move also reflects a larger shift in mission for Catholic, a relatively small school for the AAU -- with relatively modest finances.
As the cost of graduate education continues to rise, campus officials said Catholic may soon have to consider whether to close some of its 45 doctoral programs to devote its limited resources to others. Catholic's strongest programs are in theology and the humanities, low priorities in AAU's increasing focus on federal funding for scientific research.
"We still give 100 doctorates a year. And we still do about $15 million a year in sponsored research," Provost John J. Convey said. "But that's small compared to places like [the University of] Michigan."
Michigan received $364 million in federal research and development funds in 2000. The only other schools in the region to hold AAU membership are the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland.
Convey noted that Catholic's move was prodded in part by an AAU decision to raise its standards. While numerous universities are clamoring to join, the AAU has maintained its prestige by limiting membership -- it currently includes 62 institutions -- and recently outlined new criteria.
Among them are factors such as the amount of sponsored research and the number of doctorates awarded that could make it difficult for Catholic to measure up. Both Convey and AAU President Nils Hasselmo said there had been no effort to oust Catholic from the group. Yet sources in higher-education circles have been speculating about Catholic's likely departure since Clark University of Massachusetts left the AAU in 1999, until Catholic's move the only institution to do so.
Convey said Catholic probably would not have left if the AAU hadn't been reviewing its membership standards.
"It was pretty clear to us that this would be a good time both for the university to make a decision to leave and for the AAU to bring in institutions who are more like the current members," he said.
Hasselmo said he agreed with Catholic's decision. "Catholic has some outstanding programs, but it doesn't have quite the breadth of deep research involvement that the typical AAU institution does," he said. Membership, he said, is "not a quality assessment, it's a matter of profile."
Catholic University was founded in 1887 as a strictly graduate institution. In 1900, it joined 13 other PhD-granting institutions to form the AAU with the goal of establishing standards for doctoral programs across the United States.
It wasn't until 1904 that Catholic admitted its first undergraduate students. Today, nearly half its 5,500 students are undergraduates. Meanwhile, its graduate population has shrunk somewhat over the past few decades -- 2,900 now compared with its late-1970s peak of 5,600.
Among the graduate departments that have shrunk at Catholic are the sciences, including doctoral programs in physics, biology and engineering, which tend to be the most expensive to operate.
With a relatively small endowment -- $115 million, barely one-tenth the size of those of most AAU institutions' -- Catholic has had a hard time competing for the best doctoral students. "We found that from time to time we would lose a very good graduate student, who told us they'd rather come here because of the programs we have but that they're getting more support at place X," Convey said.
Although the school is planning a major fundraising campaign to increase its endowment, Convey said it would have to review its graduate programs to see whether it could continue to offer the full range of doctorates.
He said there is no talk of eliminating any specific programs, but "some may be eliminated." Convey said dropping out of the AAU will mostly mean the loss of "a good professional association and network." Membership held few other tangible benefits, and he said he did not believe losing it would affect Catholic's ability to win research grants.
Some faculty members expressed dismay at the decision to leave because of Catholic's historical affiliation with the AAU, he said, but few on campus have protested loudly.
"It didn't seem like a big deal to me," said Mark Mirotznik, an associate professor and chairman of the biomedical engineering department, one of Catholic's doctorate-granting disciplines. "It seems like it was unusual we were still in it -- the AAU outgrew us."
Andrew Hill, president of the Graduate Student Association, said the move has sparked little discussion among doctoral students. "We're a very humanities-centered institution," he said. "The university has tried for a very long time to be a lot of different things, and the scale of what it's tried to be has been beyond its means. The administration knows that, and the students know that."
Increasingly, Catholic's graduate programs are focused on upgrading the skills of working professionals as much as they are on research, said John F. Leonard, assistant dean of graduate programs for the engineering school.
"For what we are, we're one of the best in this niche," he said.
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