University President Sylvia Burwell kicks off tenure with listening tour
Burwell faces tricky task of balancing competing priorities of campus groups
President Sylvia Burwell isn’t one to sit around.
From an overflowing open house on her first day in office, to her booming Twitter account, to nonstop meetings with members of all ranks of AU’s community, Burwell hasn’t stopped moving since she took office, setting the tone for an active and present tenure.
She will spend the summer listening widely and deeply, especially on issues of diversity and inclusion, before she presents her priorities in a report to the Board of Trustees in the fall, she told The Eagle in a June interview.
“I feel an incredibly warm welcome,” Burwell said. “Just a warm welcome and a high level of engagement and enthusiasm. And I wouldn’t say those are surprises. That is a big part of why I wanted to come here. One of the things that I felt was that this was a place of great innovation and engagement and that’s something that has been confirmed.”
Exactly one month before Burwell took office, students found bananas with racist messages on them hanging from nooses across campus. The May 1 hate crime, which targeted Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated and Student Government President Taylor Dumpson, prompted students to request withdrawal forms from AU in protest and demand that then-President Neil Kerwin more actively respond to concerns from students of color.
Burwell said the incident dominated her first Board of Trustees meeting on May 4, where she heard perspectives from student leaders, such as Student Government President Taylor Dumpson and Shyheim Snead, former student trustee on the Board of Trustees.
“One of the things we talked about was the need for presence and accessibility and transparency -- not just from President Burwell, but from all levels of the administration -- as well as a heightened level of responsiveness and attentiveness to both what happened and how we proactively move forward,” Snead, who also served on the presidential search committee that selected Burwell in January, said.
The listening continued during her first day on June 1, when she hosted an open house at the President’s Office Building. Her team had budgeted two hours for the event, but when hundreds of people arrived, they extended it to almost three as Burwell made a point of introducing herself to every attendee, she said.
"I don’t know that anyone is uniquely qualified to handle these issues."
Although her jam-packed days have melded together in her memory, that event was the “defining” moment in the start of her journey at AU, Burwell said.
“It started the process of what I’ve been doing throughout this period, which is starting the process of reaching out and learning and engaging with the community here,” she told The Eagle.
In addition to meeting with student leaders and members of AU’s inner circle, Burwell has also spoken with community partners, including D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the presidents of other universities in the area and the head of the international Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Burwell is seeking counsel from them on what needs to change at AU and how she can best lead an institution with a tumultuous climate, she said.
“I would dare to say that I don’t know that anyone is uniquely qualified to handle these issues,” she said.
However, she brings a background rooted in navigating racial tensions to the table, she said.
As President Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff in the late 1990s, Burwell managed One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race. In that role, she worked with “greats” like historian John Hope Franklin and civil rights activist Dorothy Height to address issues the U.S. faced as its demographic makeup became increasingly diverse, she said.
There’s a common thread between that experience and her new role at AU, she said: the importance of dialogue.
“The biggest part of the summer is engaging and listening and learning across the campus and across the community, both inside and outside, to make sure that I’m understanding the priorities of the institution,” Burwell said. “It’s a great place and a great institution and I want to understand how it’s thinking about what are the next steps and what are the things to take this University to the next level.”
As the face of the University, Burwell has the tricky task of balancing the interests of every group she reports to, ranging from the student body to the Board of Trustees.
The board is looking forward to hearing about her progress on how AU can advance its diversity issues, but also hopes to hear from her on goals related to infrastructure and research. In particular, the board would like to see her plan for more student spaces, science programs and residential buildings, Jack Cassell, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said.
"You know she’s just absorbing everything like a sponge.”
Snead said he, too, would like to see Burwell present a “strong vision” for at least the next five years, as well as a comparable level of care for the current campus climate.
“That duality will be key because the role of the president is to both lead our institution and to also understand some of the trends and some of the things happening external to the University,” Snead said. “So, navigating the duality of having to broadcast and strategically plan for the University and move us forward, coupled with being a really active and responsive leader is what I anticipate from her.”
Dumpson, who was elected SG president in March, said when students return to campus in the fall, they can expect “tangible changes” thanks to progress she and Burwell have made this summer. During one of their meetings, Dumpson presented Burwell with an 11-page, double-sided document detailing her priorities for the fall and beyond, as well as summaries of top concerns from students.
“She’s a very active listener and you know she’s just absorbing everything like a sponge,” Dumpson said. “She genuinely cares and she’s doing it with the best of intentions. This is her first month and her first month is coming in the aftermath of a hate crime. It’s not an easy way to start anything.”
While Dumpson acknowledged the barrage of information Burwell is facing now, she and others also noted Burwell’s kindness and warmth. They hugged the first time they met, Dumpson said, and Burwell gave Dumpson the opportunity to offer a piece of advice.
“I told her to listen because students are very, very passionate,” Dumpson said. “Even though students may be saying things in a way that other people might not necessarily be receptive to hearing it, what they’re saying comes from a very real place and what they’re saying is very honest and it’s very raw. If she starts off her tenure as someone who is listening, actively listening to students, it’s going to be a far different relationship with the student body.”