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Five years in to the ‘Changemakers for a Changing World’ plan

Burwell celebrates creation of faculty positions, centers and scholarships

American University President Sylvia Burwell shared a five-year progress update of the “Changemakers for a Changing World” strategic plan, including the creation of endowed faculty positions, centers and institutes and scholarships, in an email to the AU community on Feb. 12. 

The strategy – originally launched in 2019 – is a seven-year plan aiming to “build on [the University’s] legacy of leadership, scholarship, and service,” according to AU’s website. Beginning in summer 2017, Burwell met with over 1000 students, staff, alumni, faculty and administrators to identify the University’s strengths and weaknesses. After further consultation with AU’s Board of Trustees and other community members, Burwell, alongside the Strategic Planning Committee, developed the Changemakers framework and imperatives. 

The Changemakers plan highlights three areas of focus: scholarship, learning and community. Each of these strategic themes contains a subset of imperatives that build on AU’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as distinguish AU from other institutions. 

Under the scholarship focus, the campaign created eight new endowed faculty positions across several schools. Other achievements include the implementation of “signature centers,” such as the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics in 2018. 

“From advancing our sustainability goals with the launch of the largest externally funded research grant in our history - the National Science Foundation award to study wasted food,” wrote Diana Burley, the vice provost for research and innovation and professor

academic affairs, “to launching the Outstanding Inclusive Technology Policy Changemaker Award, we are furthering our mission of changemaking and celebrating inclusivity.” 

Under the learning strategic theme, the five-year review cites the first-place national ranking of AU’s Model UN team and AU’s 12th in the nation’s first-year experience ranking in the 2022 U.S. News and World Report. The campaign also launched programs such as AU Cornerstone and AU Compass to improve students’ learning experiences. 

The learning strategic theme has also boosted students’ access to success. The learning strategic theme highlights the 2023 removal of GPA requirements for current students transferring internally between schools and a 2020 pilot program that allocated $1.2 million in financial aid to expand access to summer courses. 

In the final strategic theme of community, the committee references Burwell’s 2018 Plan for Inclusive Excellence, which aims to “advance equity in all its forms.” Alongside the Plan for Inclusive Excellence, AU established the Office of Equity and Title IX and inclusive teaching workshops. Inclusive Excellence is a national framework implemented by many universities for “thinking about equity, diversity, belonging, and student success in higher ed, and how colleges can tackle those challenges,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The report highlights steps taken to increase community on campus, including opening Black Affinity Housing in 2021 and moving the Academic Support and Access Center to the Butler Pavilion.

The report includes increased partnerships and outreach with the D.C. community. In May 2024, AU’s first cohort of District Scholars, a full tuition, room and board scholarship for high-achieving students from D.C. public schools, will graduate. Since fall 2020, 37 District Scholars have enrolled at AU. 

The report also cites the Center for Community Engagement and Service’s dedication to connecting students to volunteer work and service-learning opportunities. The Center partners with more than 300 local schools and nonprofits to provide service opportunities to students. Since 2019, over 6,000 AU students have logged nearly 150,000 service hours.

The report references AU’s commitment to the D.C. community through WAMU, a public news station for the D.C. area licensed to the University. The station laid off 15 staffers and shut down the local news site DCist on Feb. 23. 

“Decisions about WAMU’s operations and finances, like other public media institutions, are based on the station’s performance, strategy, and philanthropic and community support,” said Elizabeth Deal, the assistant vice president for community and internal communication. “They are not connected to AU’s budget. AU looks forward to our continued partnership with WAMU, which has been a pillar in the community since 1961.”

The report also emphasizes the “$109 million Student Thriving Complex” and the Meltzer Center for Athletic Performance, which broke ground on March 1. Construction is expected to be completed in 2026.

As AU moves into the final two years of the Changemakers strategic plan, the University faces a $33 million budget shortfall due mainly to student enrollments coming in lower than targets. Furthermore, AU dropped 33 places in the U.S. News 2024 Best College Ranking, falling to #105. 

“The 2024 U.S. News and World Report rankings provide incomplete assessments and unrepresentative ways of measuring higher education outcomes,” Deal said. “Drastic changes to their methodology — with 17 out of 19 metrics altered and swings in the results — raise serious questions.”

The Changemakers strategic plan measures its success through four impact areas: “improve retention and graduation rates, achieve operational excellence at AU, enhance our reputation, and diversify and grow revenue.” AU faces a unique set of challenges as it heads into the final stages of the Changemakers plan that impact success measures, including growing revenue.  

“Our progress continues to be measured by four areas of impact and while we have generated momentum in each of these areas, our work is ongoing and not yet complete,” Deal said.

With Burwell’s departure at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, Jonathan Alger, the incoming 16th president, will oversee the final two years of the Changemakers plan.

“I hope you will feel the same sense of pride that I do in who we are and what we’re doing to make the world a better place,” Burwell wrote. “And I’m confident that the accelerator phase of the Changemakers for a Changing World strategic plan will set us up for continued and growing success in the future.”

This article was edited by Tyler Davis, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Ariana Kavoossi and Sarah Clayton.

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