Kerwin vs. Burwell: comparing presidents old and new

AU community weighs in on differences, similarities of Presidents Burwell and Kerwin

Kerwin vs. Burwell: comparing presidents old and new

University President Sylvia Burwell has earned praise for what students say is a different approach to leadership than her predecessor, Neil Kerwin. 

Just four months into her tenure at AU, University President Sylvia Burwell now has something in common with her predecessor, Neil Kerwin: They’ve both led AU during a racist incident.

Now, students are comparing the two leaders, as Burwell hits the halfway mark of her first semester as president. Members of the AU community highlighted communication, listening, engagement and knowledge of the University’s culture as four key differences between Kerwin and Burwell.

Burwell communicates more directly with students

One of the primary contrasts students have noticed between the two presidents is Burwell’s increased communication with the student body. Whether via her Twitter account, which had over 4,000 followers as of the beginning of October, or her fall welcome video, which featured her walking around campus and talking to students and faculty, students said Burwell communicates more directly and often. Her welcome video generated more than 1,300 views on YouTube as of March.

President Kerwin also appeared in videos during his time as president, including AU’s 2015 holiday video.

Valentina Fernández, AU’s student representative on the Board of Trustees, said she hasn’t yet met with Burwell one-on-one, although she’s interacted with her at various events and receptions.

“I think there’s definitely a big shift in the leadership style between Kerwin and Burwell,” Fernández said. “Her whole sort of motto starting this out is ‘listen, learn, lead.’ So by listening, she’s been doing a lot of campus tours, going into the residence halls, going into all of the Welcome Week events, really just engaging with students and coming to them.”

As to Burwell’s leadership style compared to Kerwin’s, Fernández said that Burwell is more open to sharing goals and changes as they are developing.

“Not that Kerwin wasn’t [open], but he was more of a behind-the-scenes worker and would release news once the product was finished, and I think Burwell’s more ‘let me update you as things are happening,’” Fernández said. “Which I think is really important because a big part of the disconnect with Kerwin was that students were like, ‘what is Kerwin doing?’”

Burwell’s listening style is ‘outcome focused’

Devontae Torriente, who served as student government president prior to current president Taylor Dumpson, said he worked well with Kerwin. He also noted how they differed on certain issues, such as when a student burned an American flag at a protest against the election of Donald Trump in November 2016.

“I think Kerwin and I had a great working relationship,” Torriente said. “I really enjoyed the time that I worked with him even when we differed on how to approach certain things, like for example the flag burning. He and I had different responses to that.”

Despite his positive working relationship with Kerwin, Torriente noted that Burwell made a strong impression on him as a fresh face for the University. Torriente said that he was part of the presidential search last year and Burwell was one of the candidates who stood out to him.

“She was one of the candidates I got to interview and I just thought she was absolutely brilliant. I loved how outcome focused she was,” Torriente said. “We would talk about different problems on campus and she would say, ‘Okay so what solution do you have in mind and how are you going to get there?’”

Torriente hopes Burwell will improve inclusion of students of color as president.

“I’m very interested to see what fundamental and structural changes she brings to that because I think what we’re used to in the AU community is a lot of dialogue and a lot of workshops and a lot of town halls, which I think is important to a point,” Torriente said. “At some point, we have to turn that dialogue into some tangible action, to actually change how the University is functioning from top-down, bottom-up, every level.”

Torriente cited Burwell’s service in the Obama administration as a sign that “she’ll be able to handle a lot of the challenges that are going to be thrown her way.”

Students get more facetime with Burwell

Students also took to social media to voice their opinions on Burwell. Natasha Quiñones, a junior studying film, tweeted “Can I just say it’s so refreshing to have a uni president that actually wants to be here?” referencing Burwell’s strong presence both online and on campus.

“She always has a smile on her face, she’s talking to people, she wants to be here, which is just a far cry from last semester especially with Kerwin,” Quiñones said. “He knew he had to be at an event but he looked like he wanted to leave, you could tell.”

Quiñones said she would see Kerwin on campus and hesitate about approaching him or saying hello.

“Whereas with Sylvia [Burwell], you’ll say “Oh, hi!” and she’ll say “Oh, hi! What’s your name?” Quiñones said. “I respected Kerwin, but it was also like, ‘Ok, we need a president who’s going to stand up against racism on campus and other social issues.’ We need someone now especially with the political climate. The big hope for me is that this new president embodies this change and is going to move forward.”

Kerwin has a deeper understanding of AU than Burwell

While students seem to be thrilled with Kerwin’s successor, there are those in the AU community who have deep respect for Kerwin and were sad to see him go.

Joe Vidulich, the president of the AU Alumni Association, had a close working relationship with Kerwin while he was an undergraduate as student government president in 2007 during Kerwin’s first year as president.

“I can’t be more grateful for all the things he has done to really develop and expand AU’s stellar educational offerings and academic portfolio,” Vidulich said. “Dr. Kerwin had, and still does, a long-standing relationship with the institution. I mean, he was a student, he was faculty, he’s the parent of an alum, he was dean, he was provost. He was the guy who you would always see at the basketball game, sitting on the sideline regardless of if he was president or another member of the School of Public Affairs.”

Some students were extremely frustrated with Kerwin’s response to the racial incident in May, which featured bananas hung on campus. While Vidulich acknowledged that “being more visible could be done in retrospect,” the problem was deeper and more institutionalized than Kerwin, Vidulich said.

“We talked to some people and it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, how did this happen at American University?’,” Vidulich said. “But if you talk to the vast majority of them, particularly those of color, they would say, ‘This has been going on at AU for a long time, and why can’t we deal with the underlying results?’”

People wanted action immediately, Vidulich said, but sometimes that can’t always be done.

“I know that also frustrated Neil [Kerwin], because he wanted to show his commitment to inclusion,” Vidulich said. “Anyone who knows Dr. Kerwin and where his heart is knows he has a commitment to inclusion.”

Still, SG president Dumpson said she sees a “very, very stark difference” between how Kerwin and Burwell acted following racist incidents on campus. Burwell was in tears on Sept. 27 as she led a town hall addressing the hanging of Confederate flag posters and cotton stalks on campus.

“I’m very thankful for President Burwell’s ability to empathize, to have empathy and show empathy,” Dumpson told The Eagle on Sept. 27. “I believe she strongly cares about the students here at AU, and that was very visible from the first conversation I ever had with her, maybe a week or two after the hate crime happened. She is an amazing listener, very thorough and brilliant. She’s exactly what we need during a time like this.”

This story was originally published in the Oct. 20 print edition of The Eagle. 

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