Sylvia Burwell is no stranger to change.
Soon after leaving the Department of Health and Human Services and the Obama administration in January 2017, American University named her its 15th president, replacing former President Neil Kerwin.
A few months later, someone hung bananas from nooses on campus, targeting the school’s first female African-American student body president. As Burwell stepped into her role in June, students, faculty, staff and alumni of color expressed frustration with AU’s campus climate.
Now, as Burwell wraps up 10 months in office and prepares for her inauguration ceremony on April 12, she has the opportunity to reshape the University’s leadership, as several Kerwin-era administrators have already left or are departing. She also offers her own brand of leadership, which includes stepping out of her office and speaking directly with students, faculty and staff.
In the coming year, she’ll release her own strategic plan, which will guide the school for the next five years. She’s also molding a new, comprehensive fundraising campaign for the school, the first since the last push ended in 2010, to be finalized after the release of her strategic plan. At the same time, she’s weaving her Plan for Inclusive Excellence, a two-year diversity and inclusion strategy released in January, into each component of her tenure.
“This role affords one the opportunity to engage with the people in a way that other roles don’t,” Burwell said. “It’s every day. I get to see, talk to, be with staff, faculty, students, in a way, every day, hearing what they’re doing, hearing their energy, which is a great thing.”
Vacancies open for new University leaders
As Burwell stepped into her new role, several of the school’s top administrators either shifted positions or stepped down. As of late March, the University has academic openings for a provost and permanent deans for the School of International Service and School of Professional and Extended Studies.
Burwell has also added Kerwin-era veterans to her administration, including Fanta Aw, now vice president of campus life. In the last two years, new deans have been appointed to lead the School of Public Affairs, Kogod School of Business and School of Education.
The vacancies and new faces in top administrative roles allow Burwell to reshape the school’s leadership. She’s looking for people who embrace “working in partnership,” she said, while maintaining a sense of humor. They’re also expected to take a role in the Plan for Inclusive Excellence, she said.
“We want people who are committed to American University, and excited about being a part of the team here, and excited about our work that we’re going to do as we go into the future,” Burwell said.
The search for a new provost kicked off in early March, when current Provost Scott Bass announced he would step down in June. Bass is the school’s top academic official and oversees the University’s eight colleges and schools. Last time the University needed a new provost, it was because Kerwin had vacated the position himself to replace former President Benjamin Ladner.
Jack Cassell, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said Burwell would like to have a new provost in place before the next school year. She is looking for candidates that share her analytical and forward thinking style, he said.
The University is also looking for a permanent dean for SIS. Christine BN Chin, the school’s interim dean, stepped in for James Goldgeier in August 2017. SIS is one of AU’s crown jewels, ranked ninth in Foreign Policy Magazine’s list of best international relations schools in the world.
The next dean will be selected by a search committee that includes staff members, graduate and undergraduate students, and faculty within SIS. Ken Conca, the committee’s chair, said the group has already completed a listening tour, during which they spoke with faculty, staff and students to gather input about what they would like to see in a new dean. They are currently in the process of interviewing candidates for the position.
“I think for higher education today, we’re not going to be able to achieve all that we can unless we are thinking about several things,” Burwell said. “One is the future and what our students, our faculty and the world that they’re going into are going to be demanding in the future. We also have to think about partnerships and working across the institution.”
Burwell also included AU veterans in her cabinet by promoting people who held various roles during the Kerwin administration.
For example, Aw, vice president of campus life, was Burwell’s first appointment as president, Burwell said. Aw oversees a network of departments that work directly with students, ranging from Housing and Residence Life to the Counseling Center. In this role, she is one of the school’s most visible administrators. As Burwell transitioned into her new job, Aw gave Burwell a sense of the community she’s called home for more than two decades, Aw said.
“One of the things that I often talk about is that when I think about this work, for me it’s professional and personal, one because I’m a graduate of American University and I know what my experience has been at American University, and my strong aspiration for creating the kind of community that I think we can be and we need to strive toward,” Aw said.
Vicky Wilkins, previously interim dean of the School of Public Affairs, was appointed to lead SPA permanently in January 2018. Wilkins joined SPA as senior associate dean in 2014, Bass wrote in an April 2017 memo. Wilkins described Burwell as refreshing, given her non-academic background. Since becoming SPA’s permanent leader, Wilkins has focused on helping students get to know the school, increasing its visibility in the D.C.-area and diversifying the faculty, she said.
“President Kerwin got us in this great position, this jumping off point that I think she is now the perfect leader for,” Wilkins said.
John Delaney, the Kogod dean, and Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, the School of Education’s dean, started in their roles in July 2016, the summer before Kerwin’s final year as president.
As dean, Delaney is focused on connecting students with employers to set them up for post-graduation jobs, he said. He wants to bridge the gaps between the school’s programs, pushing students to interact with each other and build their personal networks.
“We have to build a more inclusive and cohesive community because that’s going to give everybody the opportunity to build the networks that will help them be successful,” Delaney said.
‘Further faster’: Next strategic plan, fundraising campaign in the works, Burwell said
Burwell’s next challenge is creating a five-year plan, called a strategic plan, to guide the University as a whole. As she works on this, she’s also crafting a new fundraising campaign and implementing her Plan for Inclusive Excellence, the school’s two-year diversity and inclusion strategy announced in January. She hopes all of the strategizing will help the University move “further faster,” she said.
“President Kerwin got us in this great position, this jumping off point that I think she is now the perfect leader for.”
-Vicky Wilkins, SPA Dean
Her strategic plan will replace a 10-year strategy that guided Kerwin’s administration and will end this academic year. The plan, authored in 2008, described goals for the school, which included advancing AU’s graduate programs, valuing diversity and deepening partnerships with D.C.-based and global organizations.
Burwell’s five-year strategic plan will be released this fall and focus on upholding AU’s strengths and improving its weaknesses, Burwell said. It will be written with the University Strategic Planning Committee, which includes representation of students, alumni, staff, faculty and administrators, Burwell said.
Direct listening is helping the committee shape the plan, Burwell said. Since starting as president, Burwell said she has spoken directly with nearly 1,000 people connected to AU, ranging from students, faculty, staff, alumni and more. In addition to listening, Burwell also examined the most recent campus climate survey, conducted in spring 2017, and brought in external help from former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole and consultant Makeba Clay.
Now, the team is examining the school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, a process referred to as SWOT analysis. Burwell anticipates offering more specific components of the strategic plan before the end of the spring 2018 semester and a full launch in fall 2018.
Holcomb-McCoy and Burwell work together on the University Strategic Planning Committee, Holcomb-McCoy said. They’re focused on creating partnerships between the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, launched in January, and organizations outside of the University. The Center’s goal is to support high school students on their journey to college, Holcomb-McCoy said.
“We’re really excited that the Center has really garnered a lot of support from local and national foundations,” Holcomb-McCoy said. “President Burwell, with her background in the Gates Foundation and her work with issues around education and issues around community engagement, [has] been really helpful to us and is a huge supporter in our work around college access.”
At the same time, Burwell is also implementing the Plan for Inclusive Excellence, which she released in January. In March, Burwell tacked on another responsibility to Aw’s portfolio: vice president of inclusive excellence. With her new title, Aw will be the “conductor” of the Plan for Inclusive Excellence, Burwell said.
Since the launch of the Plan for Inclusive Excellence in January, the Board of Trustees has also held sessions with students to help them understand how the school can be improved, Burwell said. For example, they hosted Lauren Lumpkin and Shyheim Snead, both undergraduates, to speak about their own experiences as students, Cassell wrote in a February memo following the group’s winter meeting.
“It makes a difference when they hear directly from students in terms of what’s your lived experience,” Burwell said.
Burwell is also in the process of planning for a major fundraising campaign, she said. Courtney Surls, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations, said that the University’s last fundraising campaign ended in 2010 and raised $211 million. Surls said that now is the perfect time to plan a new campaign, especially since the University is rounding out Kerwin’s strategic plan and has a new leader.
“We need to make sure the development and the fundraising is about opportunity,” Burwell said. “It’s something I spend time on every day, and it is a place where we need to put in place the building blocks to stand on to start getting the impact and results.”
This would be a comprehensive campaign to raise money for a specific set of goals, Surls said, with a determined start and end date. It would be the third of its kind in the University’s history. AU is waiting until Burwell’s strategic plan is finished to launch a fundraising push, Surls said.
“Before you get to that point, you want to make sure you know exactly what you’re going to raise money for and you have a good idea about how you’re going to get there,” Surls said.
Cassell said funds raised by the campaign will go toward scholarships, endowments and the building of a new science center to replace Beeghly Hall. He also hopes to raise money for an athletic annex building, which would offer students a place to study and socialize.
Burwell’s leadership style marked by increased visibility
From holiday study breaks on the quad to cheering on the women’s basketball team in the NCAA tournament, Burwell has made her visibility to students, faculty and staff central to her leadership style.
For example, Burwell said students will often approach her when she rides her bicycle to work.
“They’ll stop and often have something to say or want to express themselves, tell me about what they’re doing, or something that’s happening in their classrooms,” Burwell said.
Burwell has also spent time collaborating with faculty both inside and outside of the classroom. She said that a number of professors have invited her to be a part of their classes, such as Jane Hall in the School of Communication. She also convened a conference of faculty in the D.C.- area to talk about Latino youth health, a topic she worked on while serving in the Obama administration.
Student trustee Valentina Fernández has received positive feedback from her peers about Burwell’s increased visibility as compared to her predecessor, she said. Students see Burwell as a strong leader that understands that the best way to create effective change is to be present in the community, Fernández said.
“She’s definitely a lot more visible on campus,” Fernández said. “I think the listening tour really set a foundation of [how] her presidency was going to kick off and how it was going to continue.”
Burwell’s non-academic background has also set her leadership apart from previous AU presidents, those who work with her directly said. Delaney said he admires how her experience as president of the Global Development Program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allows her to look at critical issues and work efficiently, much like a CEO.
Holcomb-McCoy, who worked with both Kerwin and Burwell, finds Burwell’s experience outside of higher education gives a sense of “freshness and newness” in the role.
“She’s definitely a lot more visible on campus.”
-Valentina Fernandez, Student Trustee
“Her commitment [is] to community engagement and to ensuring that every child has access to an excellent education from birth to college,” Holcomb-McCoy said. “Her commitment to that and her work within that space through the nonprofit world, it really helps us to have a president who understands the work we are trying to do.”
Courtney Rozen contributed reporting for this article.