American University names Obama's former Health Secretary as its first female president
President Barack Obama, stands with his nominee to become Health and Human Services secretary, Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, April 11, 2014, where he made the announcement. Image via AP.

In an historic move for women in higher education, the American University (AU) has named Sylvia Mathews Burwell as its 15th president, the highest leadership position at the Washington, D.C. university.

The university announced that she will succeed outgoing AU president, President Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin, who is retiring. She will assume her responsibilities on June 1, 2017.

“My family and I are honored and excited to become a part of this vibrant AU community,” Burwell said in a statement. “American University’s distinctive mix of academic strengths, its influential scholars, engaged students, successful alumni, and extraordinary location are great assets.”

“Given the challenges facing higher education, our nation, and our world, I think there is no better time for American University to assert its considerable strengths, to lead and convene thought leaders, and take on the world’s thorniest problems. I welcome the opportunity to help AU expand its scholarly influence, enhance the student experience, and be a model for inclusion and innovation at a time when these ideals are vitally important,” Burwell said.

President Barack Obama waves as he leaves after speaking about the nuclear deal with Iran, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, at American University in Washington. Image via AP.

Burwell had most recently served as Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration from 2014 until the end of his administration.

In remarks to announce her nomination as HHS Secretary, Obama said, “She’s a proven manager who’s demonstrated her ability to build great teams, forge strong relationships, and deliver excellent results at the highest levels and she’s done it both in the public and the private sectors.”

“Secretary Burwell’s success at HHS reflects three key abilities that will make her an excellent president for our university. She fosters research and scholarship, and turns them into action. She embraces and leverages the strengths of a large, diverse institution to advance its goals, and she is able to convey complex ideas to a wide range of audiences, from members of congress to the public, in pushing for evidence-based actions and outcomes,” said Kiho Kim, professor of environmental science at AU and a member of the Presidential Search Committee.

Before that, Burwell had held a prolific career which included top leadership positions in public service during the Clinton administration, as well as in the Walmart Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

‘A leader of immense character and vision’

Image via AP.

AU described Burwell, a former Rhodes Scholar, as “a leader of immense character and vision known for her rigor of thought and laser-like focus on mission”.

“These traits, combined with her experience and commitment to education and research, make her well-suited to lead AU at this moment in our history, as we build on the momentum and progress achieved in recent years,” said Jack Cassell, Chairman of AU’s Board of Trustees.

University of Pennsylvania President Emerita and Rockefeller Foundation President, Judith Rodin, said, “I applaud the American University community on this outstanding appointment. Sylvia Burwell is a visionary, strategic and talented leader with an unmatched drive for excellence. She loves learning and rigorous debate, and has a passion for engaging people, from students to scholars, in the critical issues of the day. All of these qualities make her perfect for a 21st Century university presidency.”

AU in transformation – ‘both in prestige and physical-space’

James R. Heintze, a Librarian Emeritus at American University, and author of the book, The Fourth of July Encyclopedia, poses for a portrait at the university library in Washington Tuesday, July 1, 2008. Image via AP.

Over the last decade, AU has undergone major revamps in its research programmes, admission rate and physical expansion of its campus.

Its research programme has improved to the level “Doctoral: Higher Research Activity,” as classified by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Admission rate was dramatically reduced to 26 percent, the lowest in its history, while need-based financial aid was more than doubled. Efforts to integrate students services in campus and improve its diversity and inclusion in its student cohort were also increased.

Whereas in terms of campus size, AU established a 1.5 million new and/or renovated square feet of teaching, learning and residence hall space on main campus and the Washington College of Law’s new Tenley Campus.

While Burwell, a Harvard graduate in government, does not possess experience in higher education, the Washington Post described her credentials to be of “immense value for a university that aspires to excellence in public and international affairs” due to her “deep experience working for two Democratic presidents in Washington and two major national philanthropies”.

For a university like AU who is undergoing the “most intensive period of transformation”, Burwell is expected to be a big help in “fundraising and in growing AU’s national profile”.

“AU’s trajectory over the last decade enables us to leverage our strengths and think in bold, ambitious ways,” Burwell said.

As reported by the Washington Post, Burwell was received with a standing ovation at her introduction to the university community yesterday at its School of International Service.

Cassell noted that she will be the first female president of the 124-year-old school.

“It’s awesome,” he said.

Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a former senator now on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said Burwell has a “compelling personal narrative” and predicted she will excel at AU.

“She knows the power of what a university means in a person’s life and in the life of the community and in the country,” Mikulski said. “She brings savvy and know-how. … She really has the right stuff.”

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