A game of musical chairs: University deals with administration transitions during the pandemic
Changes in University leadership work to better reflect AU’s goals
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in our December 2021 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
As American University students navigate a pandemic-riddled college experience, the University has made several internal structural changes toward the new vision of AU, including many changes to administration officials.
Since Sylvia Burwell was appointed president in 2017, her cabinet of 10 administrators has morphed multiple times, four being new hires or assuming new roles in the past three months.
Other leadership positions at the University, including four dean positions, have also experienced high turnover, many of which have been internally promoted.
The numerous administrative changes come months after the University launched its $500 million fundraising campaign “Change Can’t Wait.” The three pillars of the campaign, listed as “Elevate, Inspire, and Lead,” aim to transform the student experience, expand faculty research and strengthen communities within the campus and city environments.
Brontè Burleigh-Jones took over as AU’s chief financial officer, vice president and treasurer on Oct. 4, succeeding Douglas Kudravetz, who retired after working for the University for over 35 years.
In her new role, Burleigh-Jones will help manage the University’s budget, treasury management and auxiliary services.
“As the chief resource manager, I make sure that we manage the resources to carry out the priorities and goals that have been identified in the campaign,” Burleigh-Jones said.
Many recent administrative moves involve tenured officials taking on new roles. Peter Starr was announced as permanent provost on Sept. 28. Previously, Starr served as acting provost since summer 2020, and as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences before that.
Due to the pandemic, Starr served as acting provost for two years rather than the original plan of serving for one year. In an interview with The Eagle, Starr said that after conducting a “360 review” of his work as acting provost, Burwell named him permanent provost in a September email.
In regards to AU promoting many officials internally, Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, said that “there is no substitute for experience.” She said that there is a benefit to understanding how the specific institution runs.
One example of this comes from inside the provost’s office. Monica Jackson became the new deputy provost and dean of faculty in July 2020. Jackson previously served as associate dean of undergraduate studies in CAS for the two previous years and as CAS’ first diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Jackson has worked for the University since 2005, originally as a math and statistics professor.
Aw was also recently promoted to vice president of undergraduate enrollment, an additional role that she assumed in early October.
“This new element is really a way to give us an opportunity to think about the student experience holistically,” Aw said.
Elizabeth Deal, the recently appointed assistant vice president for community and internal communication, told The Eagle in an email that Aw’s new position will help advance the University’s strategic work and better serve the community as a whole.
“We are prioritizing enrollment work throughout the university to meet the needs of our students, parents, and future Eagles,” she said. “As part of the work, we are elevating undergraduate enrollment to the cabinet-level to further our already strong efforts.”
Chief of staff
Seth Grossman, the vice president of people and external affairs, also led the Office of the President as the chief of staff until recently. On Nov. 1, Sarah Baldassaro assumed the role of chief of staff, while Grossman kept his position in the People and External Relations division.
This division spans over a wide array of offices at AU, including Human Resources, the Office of Equity and Title IX, Community and Governmental Affairs, WAMU and the strategic plan.
“As these functions enter important new phases, the updated alignment provides visibility and support across the university and will bolster the contributions of each area to our overall mission,” said Matthew Bennett, the University’s vice president and chief communications officer, in an email to The Eagle regarding the division’s future.
Baldassaro previously spent the past 12 years as interim vice president for communications and marketing at George Washington University.
Aw said that the role of the chief of staff is vital to the success of the University, specifically pointing out that their role is to ensure that the coordination and communication between the president’s office and cabinet members is intentional.
The University has also seen a significant turnover in its deans throughout several schools: new deans were announced for CAS, School of International Service, School of Communication and the Washington College of Law, in addition to the establishment of the School of Education in 2019.
Christine Chin, dean of the SIS, is stepping down at the end of the academic year to take sabbatical leave. Chin, a 25-year veteran of AU, assumed the role in 2018 after serving as interim dean during the previous year.
“It is an adjustment where we normally hire deans from the outside,” Chin said. “I know my community; my community knows me, but in a different capacity.”
AU has not announced a new dean and Chin said that she will not be involved in the search for a new dean. However, as an alumna of AU, she said that she is hoping that the new dean will continue to elevate AU’s reputation on a nationwide level.
As for the recent dean changes throughout AU, she said that she does not see it as alarming. “In any kind of large organization, you will get change,” Chin said.
In July 2020, Max Friedman was announced as the interim dean of the CAS, taking over from Peter Starr when he took on the responsibility of acting provost. Sam Fulwood III was also named the new dean of the SOC in January, beginning his deanship in May.
There have also been recent changes in graduate leadership. Roger A. Fairfax Jr. was named dean of the WCL in April.
Starr has been involved in the search for deans for multiple schools within AU, including CAS, WCL and SOC.
“It’s a really, really strong group of leaders now,” Starr told The Eagle. “I’ve done university administrations at two universities for 15 years and it’s a stronger group of leaders than I’ve ever seen.”