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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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BREAKING: Burwell to step down as University president at the end of coming year

Burwell announced Tuesday that her seventh year as president will be her last

President Sylvia Burwell announced Tuesday that she will be stepping down as president of American University at the end of the 2023-24 school year. 

Burwell said in an interview with The Eagle that her decision is based on the progress the University has made during her tenure, her confidence in the University’s leadership team and a desire to change her lifestyle before her children leave for college.

Burwell was inaugurated as University president in 2017 and oversaw building the new Hall of Science, saw AU achieve carbon neutrality and increased AU’s endowment by almost 60 percent. She also launched the Change Can’t Wait campaign — which will conclude in the next year — and pushed AU’s commitment to inclusive excellence. The University’s announcement included a list of Burwell’s accomplishments, which she said contributed to her decision to leave. 

“I feel like we’ve taken the University to the next level,” Burwell said in an interview with The Eagle. 

Burwell said that she is leaving AU with a great team of leaders and strong infrastructure to help the University keep moving forward. She is also committed to seeing the Change Can’t Wait campaign reach its final goal of $500 million, which she said will help build that infrastructure. 

“Those resources are going to flow to my successor,” Burwell said. “So you’ve got the infrastructure in place. So the next president, whoever she, or possibly he, is will be able to move the University even faster.”

“[My] children, they have never known life without me having a 24/7 job,” Burwell said. “[My husband] Stephen and I are hopeful that we can have at least a little bit of time with a different lifestyle.”

Closing out fundraising

The University launched the Change Can’t Wait campaign in 2021, making it AU’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign in 18 years. Last year the campaign broke a record, raising $73 million — a number the University will have to beat this year. Currently the campaign has raised $415 million, meaning that to reach the goal before Burwell steps down, it will need to raise another $85 million. 

Fundraising campaigns like this one are designed to build on themselves, Burwell said, and she is confident that it will reach its goal this year. 

“The strategy and all of that doesn’t change, because it’s the last year of the campaign,” Burwell said. “The one thing that is different now than in the first year is now we have things to show.” 

One example of this is the Student Thriving Complex, which Jack and Denise Cassell gave the gift for five years ago, and will break ground early 2024. 

“It’s been five years since they gave the gift for this,” Burwell said. “And now they’re going to get to see it actually happen.”

Leadership at AU

“It’s my experience that great organizations attract great people,” Burwell said.

While it will be the Board of Trustees’ job to select Burwell’s successor, she will be involved in the transition process. 

“We’re doing this announcement now so that we make sure that the University has a planned approach and time to do everything, and that we do transitions correctly,” Burwell said. “To me, the more important thing is to have a great place that’s going to attract good people and have a planned approach.”

According to Burwell, the most important trait an AU president can have is a willingness to embrace the University’s commitment to changemaking. 

“A person that comes in and immediately embraces, engages and internalizes that this is a group of changemakers,” Burwell said. “It has to be something you want, because that’s how you get in alignment with the organization.” 

Burwell said she feels confident leaving AU newly focused on student affairs, formerly known as campus life. This change has been part of Burwell’s and the University’s ongoing focus on centering students, and student affairs will now include graduate students, Burwell said. The future Student Thriving Complex is also part of that mission. 

In May, Burwell announced Raymond Lu-Ming Ou as vice president of student affairs and Evelyn Thimba as vice president of undergraduate enrollment management. Enrollment management — which includes admissions, retention and financial aid — is another area in which Burwell said strong leadership is essential.

Looking forward

When Burwell began her work as president — her first job in higher education — she emphasized four key areas that she wanted to focus her work on. These are the same areas she said she would encourage her successor to focus on.

The four key areas were: changes in learning, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and rise of artificial intelligence, the economics and value proposition of higher education, the changing nature of working professionally and finally what Burwell says are “cultural issues,” which at the moment center around freedom of expression and campus diversity.

At the forefront of this, and part of the cultural issues category, is AU’s commitment to inclusive excellence, which includes advancing goals of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. 

This goal, Burwell said, is made more difficult by the recent Supreme Court decision to end race-conscious admissions, known as affirmative action, as well as the Court’s June decision to allow creative services to deny LGBTQ+ patrons based on religious beliefs.

“All of that is a place where our work in inclusive excellence just got harder,” Burwell said. 

After stepping down, Burwell will remain at AU as a distinguished lecturer in the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics, which she said is representative of her commitment to the University. 

“I’m not leaving the University. I’m not going to my alma mater, I’m not going to Georgetown public policy, I’m not doing any of those things,” Burwell said. “I’m going to be right here at American University at the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Burwell had doubled AU's endowment. Burwell increased AU's endowment by almost 60 percent. The article has been updated to reflect this.

This article was edited by Tyler Davis and Jordan Young. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis. 

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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