Interim Leader Named to Permanent Post

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cornelius M. Kerwin was named American University's 14th president yesterday -- 40 years after he started as a freshman there, a decade after he was elevated to provost and two years after he took over as interim president.

School officials said the selection of Kerwin, a nationally known expert on the regulatory process, marked the start of a new chapter for the 11,000-student university in Northwest Washington, which has been rocked since 1990 by leadership turmoil.

There was sustained applause -- and a sigh of relief -- from dozens of people in the AU community yesterday when it was announced that the board of trustees had unanimously approved Kerwin, described by many on campus as honest and well-liked, if not the academic superstar that some had hoped could be lured to the campus.

"Oh my goodness, I'm glad it's over," said Joe Vidulich, president of the Student Government.

"You have a good feeling down in your gut when you know that someone who was a student who walked the same walk you did, and went to the same classrooms as you did, is now the president of your university," he said. "I'm really proud of him."

Kerwin -- who has run the campus since Benjamin Ladner was forced to resign in 2005 after an investigation of his spending of university money -- said he was thrilled at the board's decision.

Although some people on campus said they thought the trustees intended to give him the job all along despite a seven-month search that attracted more than 100 applicants, Kerwin said he did not believe it until the offer was made about 12:30 p.m. yesterday.

"I'm someone who really does subscribe to Yogi Berra's philosophy that it's not over until it's over," he said.

Kerwin, 58, had spent nearly two hours yesterday morning describing his vision for the university to the trustees in a meeting that was called to decide whether to give him the job or to extend the search.

We "have been seeking a tested leader with integrity who appreciates the significant role of this university in American higher education and understands its potential for future greatness," said Gary Abramson, chairman of the board of trustees and the 15-member search committee. "We have that person in Dr. Neil Kerwin."

Immediate tasks for Kerwin, Abramson said, will be the conclusion of the capital campaign -- the college has raised about $140 million of its $200 million goal -- and the hiring of key personnel, including a vice president for development. Other projects include a new building for the School of International Service. Kerwin said he also would like to bring new faculty members to campus.

Kerwin has been connected to American for four decades. He graduated from the undergraduate school in 1971 and joined its faculty in 1975.

He was dean of the School of Public Affairs from 1989 to 1997 and taught public administration, American government and policy implementation, specializing in the study of rulemaking. In 1997, he became chief academic officer, leading about 475 full-time faculty members in AU's six schools and colleges.

Some faculty members and alumni said that the university should have picked an outsider and that the search committee missed several opportunities.

Others disagreed.

Graduate student Peter W. Brusoe wrote in an e-mail: "I'm really impressed with the board's decision today, particularly given the feeling of some on campus that there was the need for outside leadership for new ideas, but I think the board made the right choice today in appointing a leader who is concerned about the student body, is sensitive to the concerns of alumni, and is active in scholarly pursuits."

Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.

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