BY: LAUREN LUMPKIN
American University welcomed its new president on Thursday, Jan. 26, former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Burwell is the university's 15th president and the first woman to serve in the position.
Burwell will officially take office on June 1, following President Neil Kerwin's retirement, which he announced in March 2016. With the help of consulting firm, Spencer Stuart, and a 14-member Presidential Search Committee, Burwell was selected for the position after a several-month long nationwide search.
Although Burwell has no prior experience in higher education, she is eager and ready to assume her new position. "I'm excited to come and to listen so I can hear and think and learn about what the priorities are," Burwell said to an audience of students, staff, faculty and administrators in a reception hosted in Katzen Arts Center. "I certainly come with experiences that will add to that, but I really want to hear from everyone about what should be the priorities for this institution for the next decade."
Burwell, who boasts an impressive resume and lengthy list of accomplishments â€” including President of the Walmart Foundation, Chief Operating Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founding President of the Global Development Program â€” will introduce a fresh perspective to campus. Students are eager to know how Burwell will deal with some of AU's most pressing issues, such as concerns surrounding a lack of diversity and inclusion, as well as racial tensions on campus. "I know [diversity and inclusion] is an important issue and I've learned about it through the [interview] process. In terms of exactly where to go and what to do, I think part of it is coming and listening and learning," Burwell said in an interview with The Blackprint.
Members of the AU community echo Burwell's excitement. "To get somebody of [Burwell's] caliber, who has been a cabinet secretary, who was a Rhodes Scholar, she's hit so many glass ceilings and gone through them" said Dr. Gail Hanson, vice president of Campus Life. "I'm very glad that she is the one that's going to set the mark and say that this door's wide open for anyone who's going to lead us." Dr. Hanson early this month announced that she will retire on March 31, 2017.
The community is looking forward to the leadership change, which will hopefully yield a change in the culture here at AU. Larissa Reed, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences echoed her sociology professor who speculated that, given Burwell's background, her appointment was a "political stance."
"I can understand that," Reed continued, "with how the university wants to become more research-based. But I think it's good. I just hope she does a good job. For me it wasn't so much that she's a woman, I think. I want somebody who will be a good president for the university."
Other students are looking to Burwell to recommit AU to public service. "I'm excited for the Secretary to join us because I think we can push us to follow through on our motto of â€˜ideas into action and action into service," said Gregory Pratt, a junior in the School of Public Affairs. "Her work proves that she is committed to public service and not just formulating solutions or researching, but actually going out and solving that, and it is something I think AU lacks at the moment. We are great with the â€˜ideas' part of the motto, but we lack the â€˜action into service,' and I think she'll push us toward it and take us all the way there."
Dozens of other students took to social media to express their excitement and praise AU for selecting Burwell.
Prior to Burwell, only white men have served as university presidents. Burwell's appointment is a concrete step toward more diversity and inclusion at AU, and will hopefully take shape in other forms across campus.