Straight from print: The end of an era

As President Neil Kerwin steps down from his position, he reflects on his years of leading the AU community

Straight from print: The end of an era

Dr. Neil Kerwin sits at his desk during an interview with The Eagle in the fall of 2015. 

When President Neil Kerwin first stepped foot on AU’s campus as a student, Bender Library was nonexistent and AU was the site of multiple anti-Vietnam war protests.

This May, Kerwin will step down from his position as president after 12 years, leaving behind 42 years of service to the University as a whole, as well as a transformed institution for his successor, former Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. 

Kerwin received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 from AU. Only four years later, after attending graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, he returned to the University in 1975 as a faculty member in the School of Public Affairs. He then continued to ascend the institutional ranks as the dean of SPA, provost, interim president in 2005 and president in 2007. 

“I did take the presidency over in a time of kind of crisis for us, and the institution responded beautifully,” Kerwin said in an interview with The Eagle. “From the Board of Trustees on down, there was a lot of reflection, self-evaluation and recognition that we needed to change certain aspects of the governance.” 

Coming into the role

Prior to taking over as interim president in 2005, AU underwent a period of uncertainty with its leadership. Kerwin’s predecessor, Benjamin Ladner, was caught misusing university money from the University, creating a sense of mistrust from the student body in his future ability to lead, according to an Eagle article published at the time.

After approximately seven months on paid administrative leave during which Kerwin was named acting president, the Board of Trustees determined that Ladner would not be returning to AU, ushering Kerwin into his place as the University president. 

Despite assuming the role of president at a tumultuous time for the University, Kerwin said he experienced a smooth transition while also prioritizing professionalism and better communication. 

“I had felt when I took the job that there was a considerable gap between what this institution was accomplishing and how it was understood outside,” he said. “We’ve closed that gap considerably.” 

Dr. Gail Hanson, former vice president of campus life and a long-time colleague of Kerwin, echoed the excitement that surrounded Kerwin’s transition, especially due to his background at AU.

“When he was appointed it really energized alumni of the University. There was a greater sense of pride,” Hanson said. “Because he was such an experienced American University leader, he knew the place broadly and deeply and there was no learning curve for him. He could begin working right away.” 

Sarah McBride, the 2011-2012 Student Government President and a 2013 SPA graduate, said Kerwin’s passion for AU was extremely evident in his work. 

“He’s someone who really lives and breathes AU,” she said.

An institution transformed

During his time as president, Kerwin achieved a large number of accomplishments, ranging from ones that were academic to strategic, as well as the expansion of the physical campus.

All of these achievements stem from the University’s 10-year Strategic Plan, which has been in place since 2009.

“[The plan] consists of 10 goals that we call ‘transformative goals’ and six that are called ‘enabling,’ things that you have to do to make the other 10 happen,” Kerwin said. “I think we’ve been very true to that plan over the years.”

Another highlight of Kerwin’s presidency includes the heightened academic reputation of the University within D.C. and the nation at large. 

This is exemplified by the University’s most recent 2016 acceptance rate of 25.7 percent, the lowest in the school’s history, as well as its improvement in the U.S. News & World Report’s national rankings of colleges to number 74 in the nation, compared to number 87 in 2005 when Kerwin took over.

Kerwin said he expects this trend to continue in the coming years. 

“The admittance rate for our freshman class has dropped dramatically and it looks like we’re on a trajectory to keep it on that same range this year,” he said.

Kerwin also discussed how he made significant changes to the distribution of financial aid in an era of frequent tuition increases. This contributed to his larger goal of keeping the University as affordable and accessible as possible, without sacrificing diversity in the process.

As president, Kerwin shifted the evaluation of financial aid from being primarily merit-based to focusing more on financial need, allowing students in financial hardship to obtain an AU degree. 

“I certainly wouldn’t have been able to complete AU without financial aid, and so as an alumni it meant a lot to me to keep AU within reach for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” Kerwin said. “I think our numbers indicate clearly that we’ve succeeded in that.” 

This is seen in current financial aid statistics, which indicate that the portion of need-based financial aid given out by the University has more than doubled within the past six years, increasing from 34 percent in 2009-2010 to 80 percent in 2015-2016.

The University also underwent many physical changes during Kerwin’s tenure. These changes include the opening of the Katzen Arts Center, the construction of the new School of International Service, additions to the Kogod School of Business, renovations on the School of Communication, the creation of the new Tenley Campus and the establishment of Cassell Hall and East Campus. 

After working with him during the academic year 2013-2014 as SG president, 2015 alum Patrick Kelly said that Kerwin’s leadership undoubtedly contributed to this strengthened academic recognition. 

“I think it’s hard to say that American has become the school that it is over the past 10 years without crediting Neil Kerwin for that. It’s impossible to do that,” Kelly said. “There’s a correlation between American’s growth over the last decade and Neil Kerwin’s leadership.” 

Challenges with student input

While Kerwin’s time as president has featured many achievements, it hasn’t been without its fair share of turbulence.

Throughout his tenure, multiple nationwide issues have become relevant at AU, including sexual assault, racism, fossil fuel divestment, rising tuition and tense political disagreements. 

Kerwin said he has faced these issues head on in order to stay true to the values of respect and inclusion within the institution, dealing with them directly as opposed to leaving them unresolved. 

“I felt that several years ago, I needed to be much more aggressive than I had been in inserting my voice into those conversations,” Kerwin said. “We undertook a program starting a couple years ago to restate those values and to create a series of programs to make it almost unavoidable on this campus for people to confront difference and how to not only value the difference, but to live productively with it.” 

Kerwin also stressed that he has strived to engage with students when confronting these issues, giving them numerous opportunities to share their opinions and make their voices heard. This has included holding multiple conversations with groups like the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, which currently includes two student members out of 13 total.

“Fundamentally, the key is to provide opportunities for students to have a voice in those areas where decisions are made,” he said. “Faculty and students now have a seat at almost every table.” 

However, this perspective has not gone unchallenged by students such as sophomore Ciera Jeffries, who criticized Kerwin’s absence from daily campus life and believed that Kerwin prioritized the University’s reputation over student voices. 

Jeffries denounced Kerwin’s response to an altercation between herself and an AU staff member during a post-election campus protest and flag burning. At the protest, the staff member attempted to grab a burning American flag from Jeffries’ hands, escalating into him grabbing her and pulling her up the stairs of the Mary Graydon Center, Jeffries said.

After the altercation, Jeffries and her mother met with Kerwin to discuss further University action, including a potential public apology for what she described as the “inadequate action” by AU police during the protest. Jeffries said she felt these requests went unacknowledged by Kerwin, who failed to view the situation from the perspective of the flag burners. His actions contributed to her decision to transfer to Temple University this coming fall, Jeffries said.

“I felt that during the meeting he was very arrogant and standoffish,” Jeffries said in an email to The Eagle. “He seemed more concerned about expressing his negative views towards the flag burning instead of listening to understand the intentions and messages behind it.”

Regarding his condemnation of the flag burning, Kerwin said he knew his response wouldn’t please everyone, especially due to the intensity of the heated presidential election. 

“I think that the immediate aftermath of the election was difficult on this campus,” he said. “I attempted to address some of that in a memorandum. It didn’t make everybody happy. I’m quite aware of that, but the effort was to show that this still had to be an institution that allowed for multiple voices to be heard.”

Jeffries said she thinks this response from Kerwin demonstrates that he has not “had the students’ best interests at heart.”

“Kerwin would rather lie to the public and pretend everything is dandy and smooth than acknowledge we have real problems that need to be addressed,” Jeffries said. 

Despite this dissent, Kelly said Kerwin definitely believed in “more openness” and listened to students to a much larger extent than other administrators. 

“He went ahead and listened to student input in ways that other members of the board or perhaps the administration did not encourage,” Kelly said. “He really allowed for a campus conversation to happen.” 

McBride cited additional examples of this openness and said that during her time at AU it was evident that Kerwin valued student goals and input.

“I found him to be an incredibly thoughtful person and someone who really deeply thought about every issue that was put in front of him, not just in an academic, logical way, but also in a compassionate way,” McBride said.

What’s to come

Upon stepping down from the presidency, Kerwin will be taking a year of sabbatical leave before returning to AU as a faculty member in the School of Public Affairs. 

After 42 years of working for the institution, Kerwin found it difficult to sum up what his legacy would be. 

“Talking about personal legacy in a job like this is in some ways misleading, because whatever I do, it pales in comparison to what the thousands and thousands of people do every day,” Kerwin said, referring to AU students, faculty, staff and alumni. 

He also stressed that he hopes the University will continue to enroll as diverse of a student body as possible, fulfill an obligation to give back to D.C. and continue to hold itself to high standards.

However, while he himself struggled to describe his legacy, there were no shortage of responses from those who worked with him during his tenure. 

Both Kelly and Hanson cited Kerwin’s sense of humor as a key aspect of his personality, despite his quiet demeanor, as well as his ability to create close interpersonal relationships. 

“He is hilarious,” Kelly said. “You do not see it because he comes across as very quiet, in fact, because he is a listener. But he has incredible wit.” 

Hanson said that Kerwin’s strong work ethic and constant determination will live on past the years of his leadership.

“I think his legacy is ‘aim high,’” Hanson said. “In the time that he’s been a senior leader, American University has become a very different, stronger, better, more prestigious place, and it has become that through the really hard work of the people who care about it and are in positions of leadership.”

As his final days as president come to a close, Kerwin reflected on his time in the role fondly, citing his work with different constituencies as one of his favorite parts.

“I’ve enjoyed the work immensely,” he said. “There have been moments that have not been as pleasurable as others, but the job is more of a privilege than an effort and the people that I’ve come to work with, the students that I’ve interacted with and taught over the years, the faculty that I’ve been a part of, the staff that I’ve been a part of and the alumni that I’ve been a part of have all done remarkable work for us and I just hope they’re always motivated to keep doing it.”

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