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In research and fundraising, UB struggles to move up in select company

The University at Buffalo’s annual research spending grew by more than $100 million over a decade. The university awarded more doctorates, increased its endowment and employed more nationally recognized faculty members.

And yet, UB hasn’t kept pace with most of its peer universities in research, scholarship and fundraising, a Buffalo News analysis found.

Rutgers University pulled in $86 million more in federal research money in 2012 than UB. The University of Pittsburgh employed twice as many award-winning faculty members. And the University of Iowa secured four times the amount of donations from alumni and benefactors.

The findings suggest that UB’s aspirations to climb into the upper echelon of the nation’s most prestigious public universities won’t be fulfilled anytime soon.

Its standing in the academic world matters beyond campus borders. Hefty research budgets, big-name professors and bountiful donations increasingly drive knowledge-based economies. UB officials peg the university’s financial impact across the state at more than $2 billion.

For years, UB administrators have pushed to bolster the university’s stature within a select group of universities in the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only organization of 62 public and private research universities.

They aspire for UB someday to emulate the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin and UCLA – some of the most highly regarded universities in the country.

But the data show UB slipped in relation to its AAU peers. Rather than rivaling Michigan and Wisconsin, UB is more on par with in-state peer Stony Brook University and the University of California, Irvine, which are AAU schools, as well as the University of Georgia and the University of Kentucky, which are not.

“For any institution, you can’t sit idle. Everybody’s improving, right?” said UB President Satish K. Tripathi. “It’s always a goal to keep moving up.”

The comparisons, of course, come against many of the most prestigious public universities in the nation.

UB’s membership in the AAU by itself indicates a significant level of academic achievement and research output. The group consists of just 62 universities, including academic heavyweights such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. Membership, while widely coveted, is not often conferred. In some cases it has been revoked. The association welcomed UB among its members in 1989. UB regularly emphasizes its AAU membership as a mark of prestige and distinction in marketing materials, planning documents, speeches and presentations.

“We’re doing a great job here,” Tripathi said. “We’re getting the best faculty, we’re providing an education and we’re continuing to improve in all aspects. But could we do better? Anybody can do better.”

Tripathi, who was hired as UB provost in 2004 and named president in 2011, said he expects newer data to show UB’s research output and other performance indicators growing at a faster clip. The most recent data used to compare universities in several categories is 3 or 4 years old.

The News analyzed data from the Center for Measuring University Performance to compare UB with other public universities in the AAU, including those that UB officials consider peer institutions like Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Iowa.

The News found that UB:

• Fell further behind leading AAU institutions in six of nine categories;

• Posted a 42 percent increase in research spending from 2002 to 2012, trailing the average 64 percent increase at other AAU public universities;

• Ranked in the bottom fifth of AAU public universities in the number of doctorates awarded and the number of professors who are members of National Academies, considered the pinnacle of research and academic achievement;

• Placed last among the 34 public universities in endowment growth over the decade and last in the most recent annual giving rate;

• Remained in the bottom quartile for the number of post-doctorate researchers it employed and for the 10-year growth in research spending.

• Fared best for the number of faculty members who received major national awards, grants or fellowships, such as Fulbright Scholars, Guggenheim Fellows, MacArthur Foundation Fellows and Sloan Research Fellows. UB had 13 winners in 2013, up from 10 a decade earlier. Only nine other public university AAU members had bigger increases, but two-thirds of AAU institutions still had more faculty award winners than UB.

• Ranked 42nd overall among all public research universities, down from 38th in 2004, as three AAU universities and six non-AAU universities leapfrogged UB in the Center for Measuring University Performance study.

Just two AAU institutions – the University of Missouri and Iowa State University – ranked lower overall than UB. The University of Nebraska, which was removed from the AAU in 2011, also had a lower ranking.

Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said UB may not yet have the same reputation as the so-called public Ivies, but she applauded university officials for trying to move in that direction.

“They’re one of the premier economic engines in all of Western New York,” she said. “Imagine having an institution of the caliber of Michigan in Buffalo. That would add to the quality of life here.”

Research emphasis

UB increased spending on research and development from $240 million in 2002 to $341 million in 2012, according to the Center for Measuring University Performance, which collected data from the National Science Foundation. UB’s federally funded research grew at a slightly faster clip, from $129 million to $187 million – a 45 percent gain.

But the gap between UB’s spending and the average spending by AAU institutions also grew. AAU public universities spent an average of $575 million on total research in 2012, up from the average $350 million they spent in 2002.

UB officials emphasize the need for more research and scholarly output. They acknowledged in the university’s 2014 “Self-Study” report to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that scholarly output at UB was “substantial, but not yet approaching peer AAU university levels.” The report also said the university’s faculty tended to teach more credit hours than faculty at peer AAU institutions. The report added that the university will need to review the “instructional expectations” of its faculty as it puts in place curricular changes proposed in a university strategic plan known as “Realizing UB 2020.”

The plan – predicated on the state extending the NYSUNY 2020 program that allows for annual tuition hikes of $300 – calls for hiring an additional 250 faculty members by 2020. University officials anticipate that would help grow research by $60 million.

NYSUNY 2020 legislation ran from 2011 to 2016, and UB officials want it to continue.

“It did help us because we had more predictability, we had more stability, which means we could make more strategic hires,” Tripathi said. “There was definitely this five-year period where we really could go get people, and it has helped a lot.”

University officials believe several new multidisciplinary initiatives will spawn additional research opportunities, and they also are banking on a National Institutes of Health Clinical and Translational Sciences Award, announced last summer, to spur substantial growth in research and clinical trials in UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Last in fundraising

UB has not improved its fundraising in recent years.

Annual giving to the university fell from $32.8 million in 2003 to $28.7 million in 2013. It ranked last among AAU schools in 2003 and continued to rank last, by far, in 2013. The next-to-last AAU school in raising money, the University of California at Santa Barbara, took in more than double what UB did in 2013. At $419 million, UCLA raised nearly 15 times UB’s amount.

UB’s endowment growth also lagged. While the average AAU endowment grew by 155 percent, UB’s endowment expanded by 47 percent. The average size of endowments at AAU public universities was $2.1 billion and 20 AAU public schools had endowments of at least $1 billion. UB’s endowment, at $554 million, ranked seventh-smallest among AAU schools. Larger endowments make it easier for universities to hire the best faculty members, award scholarships to the brightest students and pay for campus improvements that draw students.

“When you look at the schools at the top of the AAU, the reason they’re on a sustained trajectory going upward is they have powerful endowments,” said Dr. Philip L. Glick, professor of surgery and pediatrics and chairman of the Faculty Senate at UB. “You can’t always count on public funds to be constant or growing.”

UB celebrated a major philanthropic milestone in 2015, when Delaware North executive and UB Council Chairman Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr. and his family donated $30 million to the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, subsequently renamed the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. It was the second-largest gift in university history, and the first time UB named an entire school after someone. But in the broader world of higher education, the gift was not particularly large. More than 350 gifts of at least $50 million have been donated over the past 25 years to U.S. colleges and universities, many of them UB’s AAU peers, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. More than 150 of those gifts were at least $100 million. UB officials at one time anticipated garnering as much as $100 million for the naming of the medical school. Still, university officials hope the Jacobs gift will help stimulate more philanthropy.

UB’s ‘ascending path’

UB made a significant improvement in graduation rates. And it showed a modest gain in the quality of its faculty, as measured by major awards and fellowships and by memberships in the National Academies. UB’s six-year graduation rate increased from 62 percent in 2008 to 72 percent in 2013, moving UB from 32nd to 25th among AAU public universities. Only Ohio State University showed more improvement.

UB appears to be on an ascending path, said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a Cornell University professor who has written about higher education and also serves on the State University of New York board of trustees.

“They are making incredible efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate instruction,” Ehrenberg said.

In 2011, AAU dumped the University of Nebraska, essentially for not keeping up with other universities in its research prowess. Nebraska had been a member for more than a century. Syracuse University, the same year, agreed to resign its AAU membership. The moves made waves in the world of academia and sent shivers across UB and other campuses in the bottom tier of AAU metrics. Other public universities have vied hard for a spot, too, some of which have more-robust research profiles than UB, including the University of Cincinnati, North Carolina State University, Arizona State University, Virginia Tech and the University of Delaware.

Current AAU President Hunter Rawlings said AAU was unlikely to make further changes to its makeup anytime soon.

“We’re not in a big hurry to bring in more members,” he said. “There are lots of higher education associations, and the AAU people feel the value of AAU is in its small meetings. Everybody knows each other. They tend to show up at our meetings because we have no-holds-barred discussions.”

Some reform groups have been critical of how much influence the small, select group exerts on higher education. Critics say AAU encourages more-selective admissions among its member schools, which can end up shutting out students who deserve a chance to attend a reasonably priced public university in their home state.

“It’s just this constant striving,” said Iris Palmer, senior policy analyst on education with New America, a Washington, D.C., think tank and research group. “It emphasizes resources going into increased research, which can be a good thing, but can also lead to a cutting down on access and to increased costs for students.”

AAU’s meetings are private and its exact criteria for dismissing members or welcoming new universities aren’t clear. But UB does not appear to be under any threat of being voted out of the group, especially since the university invested heavily in a new medical school.

Those investments should help in UB’s pursuit of federal grants because biomedical research currently is a major focus of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

“If you have a medical school, you’re going to do much better in terms of research value,” Ehrenberg said. “That’s a real advantage for Buffalo.”

But UB must continue to grind for more private resources to help bolster its reputation among the academic heavyweights of the world, he added.

UB’s president doesn’t disagree, even as he spends a lot of time trying to convince lawmakers to invest more heavily in higher education generally, and in UB specifically.

“You know,” Tripathi said, “it always comes down to resources.”