A Day to Remember
At the inauguration ceremony, President Sylvia Burwell celebrates AU's shared values and charts a path forward.
On April 12, 2018, American University hosted an inauguration celebration for Sylvia M. Burwell at Bender Arena.
Colleagues, friends, and all of the honored guests who join us today – thank you for being a part of this very special ceremony.
Thank you, Jack Cassell, and all of our trustees, for bestowing this honor on me. Thank you, Neil, for leading this university to the proud position it's in today. Thank you, Mayor Bowser, Atul, and Davis, for those kind and thoughtful words.
And thank you to my family – my mother, Cleo, my sister, Stephanie, my brother-in-law Joe, my niece Keely, and my mother-in-law, Joanne. To my husband Stephen, and our children Helene and Matthew: the title of President is an honor, but it's a distant second to my favorite title – Mom.
To my family here at American University – thank you for this honor and this responsibility. I will strive to fulfill the trust that you have placed in me.
My path to this podium started in another community. One that treasured education, hard work, and service. It's a small town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains – a five-hour drive from here … well, six with the kids.
Our mornings in West Virginia started while it was still dark – with my grandfather … my Pappou … getting up to open his restaurant in Williamson, West Virginia by 6. He and my grandmother had come to West Virginia from Greece. They were immigrants drawn across the Atlantic by the promise of the American entrepreneur and the potential of the American school.
Another wise Greek, a bit older than my grandfather, Aristotle, once wrote that the state should be "united and made into a community by education."
Education united and made Hinton a community. It was the kind of place where my mother knew precisely when I was late to school – because she was teaching the 9 AM class. She and my father reminded my sister and me consistently about the importance of education. And as children we were drawn to it – seeing the world in the pages of National Geographic, hearing stories as young, intrepid reporters for the school newspaper. We had tape recorders then, which for the students here, were kind of very large, clunky iPhones. To us, education was the path to a fascinating and wide world.
We always knew, however, that walking that path took hard work. Hinton reminded you of that every day. Even as kids and teenagers, we learned the value of a hard day's work. If you were the poor soul working the hard serve ice cream line at Kirk's Home of the Hungry Smile, when everybody just got out of church, you braced yourself, you smiled, and you put all your effort into dipping every last cone. Which, by the way, was also a lesson in measuring results – if Suzie got a dip of maple walnut when she wanted strawberry, you got instant feedback. Great training for someone who's a university president in the age of social media.
Hard work was essential in Hinton, but we were taught that working hard wasn't the outcome itself. You worked hard in order to help others. Service was at the core of our community. It's why, when dusk settled on an autumn evening, my sister and I would do one round of trick-or-treating – for UNICEF – and only after that … a second round for candy. With a mother active in every church, business, and community organization, and a father in every civic group that wore a funny hat.
A heart of service was a prerequisite in the Mathews household.
Those Hinton values – a passion for education, a willingness to embrace hard work with a smile, a commitment to serving others – they guided me. They inspired me to further my education at Harvard and Oxford. They convinced me to push myself, to chase the idea of making "change at scale" – in philanthropy, in public service – here at home and abroad.
Those values that pushed me forward are the same that I'll hold as your president.
They were etched into our founding a century and a quarter ago, when Bishop John Fletcher Hurst commissioned these grounds; when our campus was just a plot of hills and grass and trees, overlooking the plains of northern Virginia, the Blue Ridge mountains of western Maryland, and the young capital of a nation poised to become a world power.
Our values come from the Methodist tradition – a tradition of human rights and human dignity, of safeguarding the freedom that allows diversity of backgrounds and diversity of thought to grow and thrive.
We've carried that spirit with us through our history.
American University has a proud history – one of momentous words and deeds. On these grounds, we've welcomed presidents and prime ministers, leaders and activists, actors and artists from around the world. President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated the cornerstone of the McKinley Building… it's here that President Eisenhower marked the founding of our School of International Service, calling us to wage peace … the same school where, more than half a century later, President Obama would say, "it is surely the pursuit of peace that is most needed in this world so full of strife." And out on Reeves Field, President Kennedy delivered his famous speech, "A Strategy of Peace", empowering us with the reminder that our problems of war and peace are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.
I would just suggest one slight edit to that: women are pretty good problem solvers, too.
At AU, we have a history of breaking barriers – like the women who started our Washington College of Law, the first law school founded by women.
We're also the product of history that is spoken of less often – the history of the newly-freed, working-class African-American families who settled in Reno City, where Tenleytown stands today. The history of the selfless graduates of AU who went into lives of quiet, persistent service to others. The history of the artists and performers who found contentment in the celebration of our humanity in all its beauty and complexity.
We're the home of scholars who dedicated their lives to advancing the frontiers of knowledge; of Peace Corps volunteers who struck out to serve in villages and communities around the world. And yes, of the enslaved men and women who worked on this land in the decades before we became a university, whose memories call on us to strive toward equality and justice in our lifetimes.
Our history is a shared history –on this campus, we are not a collection of individuals isolated and cut off from one another. We live the African philosophy of "ubuntu" – the idea that "I am … because we are" – that we are all bound together by our humanity. We're a community committed to the idea of education and learning, scholarship and research, and public purpose, broadly defined.
We are a University of strivers and dreamers, of activists and artists, of scholars and servant-leaders. We realize that when we all contribute, we all succeed. We are, quite literally, "one-AU".
And we carry the best of our history through today.
We're producing a community for public purpose – active citizens engaged in building a stronger nation, and world. We see it in our faculty and students, those who traveled to Norway and worked to build a website that connects young, female refugees to emotional and career counseling, , and language classes to improve their job prospects.
We're investing in applying our scholarship to our community. Our new Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, for example, is working to ensure that, not only is the door to a college education open for all, but that all can succeed once they enter.
We're creating the models for higher education – with faculty and courses that bridge programs, unite scholarship with active service, and tackle the emerging issues of the 21st century. Our East Campus and Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building buzz with the questions of today and the opportunities of tomorrow. And soon, our state-of-the-art Hall of Science will, too.
At American University, our past does not confine us. It propels us … forward.
Today, it propels us toward an uncharted future – with nearly boundless opportunities, and challenges.
These challenges come from the future of learning. The academy has long rested on some fundamental conceptions – like a calendar that fits an agrarian society, like the idea that four to six years of education provides a base of knowledge that lasts a lifetime. But learning today must be constant … year-round … lifelong.
The future of learning is also the future of our students – students who come to us today from a wide variety of backgrounds, often with higher levels of stress, and a familiarity with an information ecosystem that is instant, and on-demand.
These changes in learning stem from a fundamental change in our society – a change to the very nature of work.
Following the Second World War, American workers would often rely on a relatively stable foundation of rising wages, job-based skills training, and a sense of economic security. It was on this foundation that America built the middle class and became the engine of the global economy. Yet today, a surge of technology and global pressures have increased firms' reliance on contracting, outsourcing, and automation. Our economic foundation is shifting, and we all have to reevaluate how it works.
This change puts additional pressure on the value of education, and how we engage in educating. On the one hand, a college education has never been more essential to success and the ladder of opportunity. On the other hand, there is great pressure on what education looks like, and what it costs.
Even when students do have a chance at education, they often find that the campus environment is a setting for society's broader tensions. College is a place where students strive to find their identities individually as young adults, and collectively as a community. And today's national pressures can force our students to look at issues like inclusion and free expression as a binary choice – rather than the complementary and unifying ideas they are.
The list of challenges we face runs long. But times of great challenge call forth great leadership.
American University, we are poised to lead.
We lead because we're an institution of higher education – committed to the pursuit of truth. As the fearless journalist Ida B. Wells once wrote, "the people must know before they can act."
We lead because of who we are. The American University. Our name gives us a unique responsibility.
What can we draw from our name? … What does it mean to be the American University? … We can start by looking to the great French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville. He once noted that Americans hold "a lively faith in the perfectibility of man… They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement."
We don't believe we're perfect … we don't believe our university is perfect … and we don't believe our society is perfect. Like our namesake, we come to each one with a sense of hardened optimism. We are future-oriented, grounded by a sense of community. We are outward-looking and innovative.
And here at American University, we have a special opportunity – we're building on a firm foundation.
It's a foundation made of our city. That's Washington, DC as a national capital and a center of global business, but also Washington, DC as a cultural touchstone – the Washington of Abraham Lincoln and John Adams, as well as the Washington of Duke Ellington and Frederick Douglass. A Washington that thrives, with neighborhoods and families. A Washington that we will be a part of, not apart from.
We have a foundation made of our roots – pioneers who broke barriers, and those who dedicated their lives to a cause greater than themselves.
Most of all, we have a firm foundation in the people who call this community home. I've learned that the best leaders spend more time listening than they spend talking. Yes, I realize that is an ironic line in a speech that's 20 minutes long.
When I listened to our community – in faculty breakfasts, in conversations in Mary Graydon, in the stands at our women's basketball games – I heard one word again and again
AU is infused with a commitment to service. We instinctively live out Booker T. Washington's famous quote, that "the best way to lift one's self up is to help someone else."
Because, while I stand before you, deeply honored by the trust you've placed in me – I know that today is not about one person or one office. Today is about our collective future – American University's future.
It's a future that I believe will rest on five pillars.
First, we must use partnerships to achieve excellence. We must work together – from Kogod to Katzen, SIS to Spring Valley, across schools and programs, with local community organizations and national organizations, between the public and private sectors alike. Because it's only by working together that we can achieve excellence in our scholarship, excellence in our research, excellence on the playing field, excellence in our classrooms and in the workforce.
Second, we need to lead in academics, teaching, and experiential learning. We need to make sure that we are great both in research and teaching. We need to be the university of "and", not "or". We need to value our research and scholarship, as well as the experience inside and outside the classroom.
Third, we must set our sights on the future. The future of learning. The future of work. The future of citizenship. We must empower our faculty and staff to work in new ways, across schools. We need to continue to improve the student experience. We need to take on the challenges in the economics of higher education. We need to focus on what it means to learn over the course of a lifetime.
Fourth, we need to nurture our connection with Washington, DC. That means finding ways to be productive members of our local community – through acts of service, and helping the local economy thrive. And it means making sure our AU community benefits from everything this great city has to offer.
Finally, we must continuously take up our charge to make a positive impact on the world, combining our scholarship with a commitment to service. To produce changemakers as well as changemaking scholarship.
That's the future we're building here at American University. One of partnerships; of "and" not "or"; grounded in our community with our eyes set on the horizon, looking toward the future - a place for changemakers.
If that sounds like the future you want to build, American University is the place for you!
A place to combine the best of scholarship and experiential learning.
A place to learn from both professors at the top of their professions and from a world-class city and our nation's capital – a place focused on good thinking and good doing.
A place to build the model for higher education, for active citizenship, for the economics of higher education, for cutting-edge scholarship.
This can be the place to invest your time, your generosity, and your effort as we take this community, this country, and this world into a brighter future.
Just like Hinton, the best reflection of American University is its people - that is our strength. That is how we will navigate through the challenges ahead. That is how we will strive every day to reach our highest values.
That, as one AU, is how we will nurture the fire of our souls, and build a future worthy of the legacy we inherit.
Thank you for this honor, and Go Eagles!
At the inauguration ceremony, President Sylvia Burwell celebrates AU's shared values and charts a path forward.