Kerwin looks back
Dr. Neil Kerwin sat down with the Eagle to discuss his time as President, his thoughts on the University and his future plans after he steps down in May 2017
Forty-eight hours after announcing his retirement, AU President Neil Kerwin reflected back on his time as the President of American University, an institution he’s been a part of for 42 years.
“My years in this role have been enormously rewarding, but now the time is right for the university, and for me, to begin the process of transition,” Kerwin said in a March 28 memo to the AU community.
Kerwin’s transition coincides with the completion of several major University projects, and he said the University is positioned well for someone to take the institution to new heights. His time at AU has come full circle, having served as a student, professor, dean, provost and president. However, Kerwin said he will not have an active role in selecting the next President and will leave that decision to the Board of Trustees and the search committee.
“I believe that the institution is the type of University that will attract interest from a wide variety of highly qualified people,” Kerwin said in an interview with The Eagle on March 30. “My expectation is that the board, the search committee and the University community will have an interesting array of choices. I’m confident that they’ll make the right decision.”
Kerwin became the 14th president of American University in 2005 after his predecessor, Benjamin Ladner, embezzled money from the University.
“The University means a great deal to me and my family,” Kerwin said. “The fact that I’ve been able to spend an entire career here is very meaningful to me.”
One of Kerwin’s noted successes as the leader of the University has been strengthening its academic reputation, exemplified through this year’s freshman acceptance rate of 25.7 percent, the lowest in the school’s history. During his tenure as President, AU has also climbed in the national rankings. In 2005, American University was ranked 87th in the country, and the school now sits at 72nd.
Whoever is chosen as Kerwin’s successor will have to work with the one of the most politically active student bodies in the nation. Kerwin said he that he has given students a seat at the table to discuss every important decision that the has University made, something that he considers vitally important for the improvement of the University.
“We see the students as active partners in the development of the University,” he said. “This is a very intelligent, very engaged student body.”
Kerwin highlighted the importance of student concerns and acknowledged how active the AU student body is in creating dialogue on issues such as diversity and inclusion, affordability and sexual assault. He believes that the passion students show for these issues comes from a desire to help their college community, and he values student input and discussion when considering his proposals for the University.
“I’ve never found it a burden,” he said. “I never thought [the students] had anything but the best intentions of the University, and the best intentions for themselves and their families.”
Kerwin added that discussing these topics with students allows for an enhanced, more educated and informed learning environment.
“There’s no question that they raise issues that are hard to deal with, but that’s what Universities are all about,” he said. “They’re all about taking on tough issues, debating them with the best information we have, and making a decision and being held accountable for it.”
Kerwin believes that the higher education system is a “beacon” for students not just at AU, but around the world, and he advises students to give thoughtful consideration to who they elect to national office in the 2016 election.
“Students should focus on whether or not what the candidates are saying are in the long term best interests of the higher education system,” he said. “We have a very important national interest in seeing that our higher education system remains unparalleled.”
Kerwin will be taking a sabbatical year before returning to the classroom as a tenured professor in the School of Public Affairs, teaching whatever class the dean wants him to teach, he said. He chuckled, saying that it will be strange to have a boss again. Kerwin’s sabbatical year will consist of research to prepare himself to be the best teacher he can be in the classroom.
“I’m looking forward to a sabbatical year to get back up to speed on a new approach to teaching from when I first started, and learning cutting edge techniques...and seeing the new generation of students in the classroom.”
Despite having accomplished a wide range of goals during his 12 years at the helm of AU, Kerwin said he is not willing to take all of the praise.
“I’d like to think during the years that I’ve had the privilege to hold this job that the stature and respect for our institution has grown, that students feel the degree from this institution is valued both to them and the broader society,” he said. “I’m very proud of the work that our faculty do in the classroom. The research they do has increasing influence on the fields they represent.”
Looking back on his time as president, Kerwin said he does not have any regrets, believing that he promoted the University in multiple settings and maintained healthy relationships with the student body leadership.
“It’s the balance of time that will tell you what we should have spent more time on,” he said. “This is a terrific institution. It’s been a privilege.”