The Airlie Center was gifted to American University by the Airlie Foundation in 2016, but for much of the community, The Airlie Center has remained cloaked in mystery. After pandemic-related closures, AU is hoping to increase community access to the 300+-acre hotel, farm and reserve, while using more of Airlie’s produce on the main campus. As a part of the University’s “Change Can’t Wait” campaign, Airlie also commits to sustainable practices.
The Center includes the Berkshire Farm and the historic Airlie House, which includes a hotel, conference space and restaurant. From Martin Luther King Jr. to the minds behind Earth Day, the Airlie Center has been a host facility for arbiters of social progress for over 50 years.
Since acquiring the facility almost seven years ago, AU has begun assessing how Airlie’s resources can serve the campus community. Before the coronavirus pandemic, when staffing on the farm was reduced, Berkshire Farm had been providing occasional produce to AU Kitchen and for catered campus events. Despite the setbacks during the coronavirus pandemic, according to AU Internal Communications Manager Jasmine Pelaez, AU Kitchen is now using between 30-50 percent of the Berkshire Farm produce available each week and aims to increase that number by aligning what crops are planted with what is in demand on campus.
Michael Scher, the assistant vice president of Campus Auxiliary Services who oversees the Airlie project, says he hopes to continue to build the dining partnership between Berkshire Farms and AU Kitchen.
“We really sat down and said we want to elevate the farm-to-table experience,” Scher said. “We have this incredible farm, how do we do that? And the biggest thing is, as simple as it sounds, it's really just setting up good workflows and working relationships between the chefs, the planning teams at the AU Kitchen and at the Airlie kitchen and the farm.”
Per that goal, Airlie meat and produce will be regularly sold in the newly opened East Campus Grocery and Freshens.
In addition to wanting to utilize Airlie’s food resources, there was an initial push when the property was acquired to allow AU professors to bring their classes to the property for hands-on learning opportunities. The University initiated a pilot program in 2018 that brought a limited number of environmentally-oriented classes out to the property.
Jesse Meiller, who formerly taught in the AU department of environmental science and is now an associate teaching professor at the Georgetown Institute for the Environment & Sustainability, said she started bringing her classes out to Airlie informally as soon as the facility was gifted to AU.
“I loved it because it's not like you're out there with a bunch of tour groups, right?” Meiller said. “It's not like you're going to visit a farm. It's just you and the crops or you and the animals. So because I was teaching about that it really was a meaningful experience.”
These pilots also came to a halt as a result of the pandemic. However, Scher says that he is in the process of revamping the program. This spring, the Kogod School of Business is partnering with Airlie to be the focus of the MBA capstone class’s strategic advisory project.
Two Airlie-centered grant proposals have also been recently approved by Diana Burley, the vice provost for research and innovation. One, designed by professor Victoria Kiechel in the School of International Service, will create a supportive writing retreat for multidisciplinary doctoral candidates who are in the post-research stages of their dissertations. The other, collaboratively submitted by professors Maya Livio in the School of Communication and JP Merz in the College of Arts and Sciences, will work to develop ecotechnologies that can sense and respond to environmental crises.
Meiller says she thinks Airlie has the potential to serve as a great learning resource for students.
“I think it would benefit AU to have a multidisciplinary approach to learning where students were able to experience different things that they couldn't experience on the main campus in Tenleytown,” Meiller said.
The Airlie Center, in addition to its farm, has a hotel and conference center that has been open to guests since it was acquired in 2016. In the last year, the conference center has hosted the University’s Board of Trustees retreat and in June of 2022, the hotel started offering discounted rates to AU staff and faculty.
Scher says that in the future, he hopes to make the hotel resources and amenities more accessible for students. While he has been exploring ideas such as student yoga retreats and discounted hotel stays, he says that there are some obstacles left to overcome with regard to transportation accessibility.
“I think that transportation, getting out there and getting around the facility, is a huge limitation,” Meiller said. “So in an ideal world, that would be a component that would be taken care of by AU.”
Pelaez says the efforts to address issues are ongoing and that the University plans to release more information in 2023.
According to Scher, one of the reasons AU received the Center from the Airlie Foundation was because of the University’s commitment to sustainability and working towards environmental solutions. He says they are staying true to that commitment through a variety of sustainable practices they use at the Airlie facility.
On the Berkshire Farm, their practices are United States Department of Agriculture Good Agricultural Practices compliant and working towards becoming organic. AU has also worked with departments at the University to create an irrigation system to reduce water usage.
While there are also sustainable efforts being taken at the hotel and more planning to be implemented, Scher says the facility will continue to add.
“We'll be looking for those additional places where we can improve our practices,” Scher said. “So things like when we look at renovating spaces and rooms, installation, windows, reduce energy usage, LED lighting – so there’s a lot we do out there but there's more [that] can be done.”
AU’s stewardship of Airlie is a part of the “Change Can’t Wait” campaign that pledges to advance student educational opportunities, research, and community engagement.
According to Pelaez, all of the revenue generated by the Airlie property is put back into the facility.
"Since 2016, the University has reinvested Airlie’s revenue and earnings from guest bookings, conferences, weddings, and farm produce and meat sales back into the property to renovate rooms, public spaces, improve infrastructure such as roofs and internet, and build out the Berkshire Farm operations," Pelaez said.
Scher says he has prioritized community engagement with the Center because of the renewed push to utilize Airlie’s resources. Over the course of this semester, the auxiliary services office has invited Airlie to participate in various community engagement events. From a cooking competition with AU Kitchen held in Mary Graydon Center on Nov. 16, to a produce booth at the weekly campus farmers market, Scher says he is excited to see community members learn about Airlie.
“But I think really, for us, you're seeing so much positive engagement from across the AU community with Airlie, and I think the reason for that is because it's a special place,” Scher said. “The more and more people we take out there, the more they're like, ‘Wow, this is ours?’”
This article was edited by Mackenzie Konjoyan, Jordan Young and Nina Heller. Copy editing by Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Stella Guzik and Leta Lattin