When President Sylvia Burwell was first announced as American University’s next leader, The Eagle identified her as the first woman to hold the position. As she enters her final year in the role, she has gotten more comfortable with the identifier.
As Burwell constantly found herself introduced as the University’s first female president, she took slight issue with it.
“I wondered about this question of always being introduced as the first woman, and I’m sure you understand why that’s a question,” Burwell said in an interview with The Eagle. “You never wanted to think that I was selected for that versus qualifications, right?”
Burwell previously discussed this discomfort with Drew Faust, Harvard University’s first female president, who explained to her how important the label is. Burwell said Faust told her that the label brings the significance of progress to people’s minds.
“After talking to her, I’m introduced that way every single time,” Burwell said. “I think it’s so important for people to see, because it’s not a Barbie world.”
Now, entering her seventh and final year as president, Burwell said she sees how far AU has come.
“It’s just as likely that our next president [will] be a woman,” Burwell said. “Even though that’s not the way the world was for however many 125 years before. That has just changed, and that’s a great thing.”
Burwell’s successor, she said, will have to continue the work of engaging with students and prioritizing mental health on campus.
Burwell took the job as AU’s president with a background in public health, rather than education. She took the position at AU after serving as President Obama’s secretary of health and human services and she says this helped her approach mental health on the cutting edge.
“The mental health stuff, it was a priority, and quickly became clear to me that it needed to be a priority,” Burwell said.
Burwell took a public health approach to mental health services, focusing on “prevention, detection and response” and working towards “mental health parity.”
Burwell saw AU’s biggest issues with mental health services as a disconnectivity between the services offered and a lack of diversity in the staff.
“The diversity of our counselors has increased over the seven years dramatically,” Burwell said. “People weren’t going because they couldn’t see themselves.”
The University recently combined its mental health services into the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services, something Burwell saw as one of her key responsibilities to facilitate. She said her job is to frame the most important issues so that they are in a position to prevent, detect and respond to mental and physical illness.
Part of this ties to the University’s Office of Equity and Title IX, after University administration came under criticism for its response to sexual violence on campus. Burwell again said she believes better integrating different offices is key. The University responded to these criticisms with the formation of a Community Working Group to workshop solutions..
President Burwell attended one of six Community Working Group meetings herself, and a number of students and advocates criticized the meetings’ efficacy. Some also took issue with their treatment at meetings from staff members, and with the meetings’ diversity. The meetings concluded with a list of recommendations that Burwell said the University will be implementing with the incoming Class of 2027.
“When you have people engaging in that [Title IX reporting] system, they already have had something that exacerbates the anxiety and stress,” Burwell said, speaking about how Title IX complaints exacerbate mental health issues. “So therefore how it needs to be handled in an integrated way becomes more important. So that’s how I would relate the broad picture of mental health to [Title IX].”
Students, however, still have issues with the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services’ inclusivity, especially for LGBTQ+ students. Students have said the Center needs better individualized services to care for the LGBTQ+ community. This, students say, would make mental health resources more accessible and less intimidating. While Burwell said her successor will need to focus on mental health, she said the University is well set up to encourage that.
“I believe there are certain things that are in the fabric now. Inclusive Excellence is in the fabric, it’s woven in,” Burwell said. “It’s volleyball, and I’ve set them up for the spike. That’s what we’re doing in terms of this institution in this university. And so I’m not nervous or worried because any president’s gonna have to focus on mental health.”
Burwell said she could see the difference in mental health issues in the students as soon as she came on campus, and that this was the thing that surprised her the most. Burwell’s efforts to connect with students aided her in this realization.
Throughout her years at AU, Burwell has made an effort to host monthly interactions with students, attend athletic events and senior days, participate in the arts — like when she voiced a part in a student play — and attend fundraisers.
Engaging with students has been an aspect Burwell enjoyed in her time at AU, and gave her an opportunity to “learn about the world.” She said engagement with students prompted her to write a piece for Foreign Affairs on the mental health crisis in students, which has mirrored her strategy on reforming mental health care at AU.
“How you all see things is different and is changing and evolving. How you think about things is different in you all — you change in a four year span,” Burwell said. “I can see a difference in terms of the freshmen to the seniors, of how they view certain topics and how they think about things. So [mental health care] becomes really important.”
This article was edited by Tyler Davis and Jordan Young. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis.