Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Former HHS Secretary named next AU president

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the first woman to hold the position, will assume her responsibilities on June 1

Former HHS Secretary named next AU president

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who will be AU's first woman president, sat down for an interview with The Eagle on Jan. 26. 

Sylvia Mathews Burwell will be American University's first female president, the University announced today.

Burwell comes to AU after having served as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama. She has no prior experience holding a position in higher education. 

She will assume her responsibilities on June 1, following the retirement of President Neil Kerwin, who announced he would be leaving his post in March 2016. The University’s announcement is the culmination of a months-long national search to find Kerwin’s successor, which included the use of the outside search firm Spencer Stuart, as well as a 14-member Presidential Search Committee.

Burwell said she is ready to take on the challenge of leading AU and is excited for the opportunity to build on the work that Kerwin has done to improve the University over the last ten years. 

“This is an organization that I believe is on very strong footing thanks to the great work of Neil Kerwin and the team here,” Burwell said in an interview with The Eagle. “Whether that’s all the additional students that can come in with financial aid or the increase in scholarship in some of the rankings that the University has. All of those things create a very firm foundation and an organization that is ready and excited to go to the next step and I’m excited to be a part of that.” 

What Burwell brings to AU

Burwell’s experiences in top government positions and strong personal network will help boost AU’s standing as a research institution, Board of Trustees Chairman Jack Cassell said.

“With her knowledge of some of these government agencies, we believe that she will have contacts that will help us down the road,” Cassell said in an interview. “Just having her come from such a high level of government, she will automatically put us on the map in a bigger way than we are today.”

While Cassell and AU faculty members who met with Burwell noted her lack of higher education experience, he said it did not impact their confidence in her ability to serve as president. 

“I am not concerned about that at all,” Cassell said. “I’m the kind of person who believes in hiring the very best candidate, and in my mind, there wasn’t any doubt about who that candidate was.” 

Burwell said that she believes her experience leading the Department of Health and Human Services has prepared her well to lead the University. As the head of HHS, Burwell said she focused on listening and building relationships with others, something that she believes will be an asset as president.

“The diversity of things going on at a place like HHS I think parallels the diversity of all of the things going on at an institution like American University,” Burwell said. “All of the different constituencies, whether that’s the Hill, the business sector, the consumer, the staff at HHS, the people that we’re serving, parallels the many constituencies that are part of the University.” 

Once on campus, students can expect Burwell to engage with them about their concerns regarding issues such as diversity on campus and college affordability, Cassell said. 

“I think she’ll be a very visible president,” Cassell said. “She’s the kind of person that’s going to really roll up her sleeves and have some meaningful discussions with our students on things that are important to them.” 

Burwell said she has dealt with contentious issues surrounding race and gender during her time running large organizations and shaping policies that affect people’s daily lives. 

“There are also a set of challenges that some would call cultural, whether those are the issues of race or academic freedom,” Burwell said. “Those are things that to me are challenges but they’re attractive because I think they are opportunities.” 

A seasoned professional

Burwell brings with her a background as a philanthropy executive and senior government official, including roles in the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

She served as Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services from 2014-2017, acting as the public face and defender of the Affordable Care Act. Prior to her appointment, she directed the Office of Management and Budget from 2013-2014. 

“I’ve been fortunate to work on and lead highly complex organizations and I think the skills that are required to lead and manage complex organizations apply, whether it’s in a University setting or the largest department in the U.S. government,” she said. 

Burwell served as president of the Walmart Foundation from 2012-2013, following 11 years at the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she served first as chief operating officer and then as president. In both these experiences, Burwell learned to “listen and build relationships,” skills she believes will benefit her in her new role. 

Her tenure in the Clinton administration spanned eight years, where she served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, White House deputy chief of staff, chief of staff to the treasury secretary and staff director of the National Economic Council. 

Burwell graduated with a degree in government from Harvard University in 1987 and later attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.

As she prepares to take on her new role, Burwell said she is excited by the passion that AU students and faculty bring to their work and the world around them.

“My sense of the place is a sense of an institution that values innovation and actually doesn’t fear change but embraces it, [and] thinks about where it’s going and what the future holds,” Burwell said. “So, [I’m] excited to be a part of that.” 

crozen@theeagleonline.com and hsamsel@theeagleonline.com