Op-ed: A reflection on Kerwin and Burwell
More of the same, where is the change?
As students adjust to a new administration under President Burwell, there has been speculation about whether certain issues on campus will be addressed. American University’s campus has endured some transition with the new University president while other aspects of the new administration seem reminiscent of old policy.
Although President Burwell and her predecessor, Neil Kerwin, have different approaches towards the AU student community, there are some issues that have yet to be resolved. The most prevalent issue is the underlying racism that continues to resurface.
Last year, under President Kerwin, there were incidents involving bananas hung around campus and attacks against black female students. This fall, confederate flag posters were hung up around AU with the saying “Huzzah for Dixie” and pieces of cotton plants. Both took place under different administrations and proved not to be isolated events, but part of a greater problem on campus.
One pivotal difference between the Burwell and Kerwin administrations is the communication between students and staff. Following the incident of the confederate flag posters, President Burwell, along with many other members of the AU staff, sent out emails concerning the town hall and possible opportunities for student counseling. This contact with students was made the day after the incident had occurred.
President Burwell’s prompt response to racism on campus is a shift from Kerwin’s delayed policy. After the attacks against black female students, President Kerwin took a week to address this blatant display of racism. He responded with a genuine call to cease racism on campus and implement more diversity, but his input was not as immediate as President Burwell’s.
While the timing of Burwell’s and Kerwin’s responses differed, the content did not. In February 2016, Kerwin outlined five steps for integrating inclusion on campus in the long-term. The former president worked with staff, students, faculty and alumni to develop this plan that included rhetoric similar to that of Burwell’s response. The current president is more prompt in her response to racism on campus, but her overall message echoes that of Kerwin’s: these problems must not divide us and we have to ensure better diversity and inclusion on campus.
One prominent problem that many found with former President Kerwin was his reserved nature and lack of understanding of the AU student body. After the 2016 presidential election, many students expressed their discontent by burning American flags. Kerwin deemed this act disrespectful: a response that outraged many students.
Burwell has shown that her ideals are more in line with that of the AU community than Kerwin’s. She took immediate and direct action following the hanging of confederate flags and addressed many issues that students were pleased to have recognized. She has also had more of a presence on campus and on social media, making her appear more approachable than Kerwin. At the town hall, Burwell noted that the racist incident was not an isolated event and she made sure to relay that student sentiments were being heard.
Although Kerwin was not as present in campus life, he was not completely uncommunicative with the student body. While the town hall following racist outbreaks under Kerwin was initiated and held by the student government, unlike Burwell’s town hall, he did consult students to help address issues on campus. Both presidents made use of student voices in times of unease on campus.
Whether face time and increased communication with students correlates to a successful administration has yet to be determined, but Burwell’s new approaches have the potential to push the campus forward. In reaction to this fall’s racist incident, the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion has started working to hear students and ensure the safety of all races and genders on campus.
“Our plan is to not make it a reaction to an incident and instead look systematically at the campus,” said Caleen Sinnette Jennings, the PCDI chair and professor of theater.
With help from PCDI and student efforts on campus, it remains to be seen whether Burwell will fully live up to her potential as a fresh start for the University or merely remain a symbol for promising change.
Grace George is a freshman in the School of Communication.