It was the day after American University President Benjamin Ladner was ousted, and acting president Cornelius Kerwin had much to do: With a suddenly far more visible role, Kerwin's schedule was jammed with meetings. But he stopped when he saw student government President Kyle Taylor, visited with him and his mother and told Julie Taylor how much her son had accomplished.
"Oh, he's nice," she said to her son afterward, seeming impressed.
On campus, many spoke warmly of Kerwin as the private university in Northwest Washington begins a new era without Ladner, who had been president since 1994. Kerwin was described as modest, honest, direct, scholarly -- and, well, nice.
Students, faculty and other administrators agreed yesterday that the man who was tapped by the board of trustees to be acting president in August -- and who is likely to head the school for at least the rest of the academic year -- has been a good choice to steward the university through a difficult time.
"He is very well-suited for this role," said Claudio Grossman, dean of AU's Washington College of Law. "He has the experience as an administrator and the values required to be successful."
Kerwin began teaching at AU in 1975 and served as dean and then provost. As provost, some said, he was known for seeking feedback before making decisions and for continuing his research.
"There's tremendous respect for him among the faculty," said Anthony Ahrens, president of the faculty senate.
Faculty and administrators also credit Kerwin with stewarding the academic programs under Ladner, who concentrated on the school's external relations.
Kerwin's expertise -- he is an internationally recognized expert on rulemaking by administrative agencies of the federal government, having written what some say is the definitive text on the subject -- might suggest a rigid personality. But those who know him say he is funny, slightly reserved but easy to engage.
"He's the type who will walk down the quad and wave at everybody," Kyle Taylor said.
Students said he has made a particular effort to reach out to them since he became acting president Aug. 24. A few weeks ago, he rolled up his sleeves to play ultimate Frisbee on the main quad.
Kerwin, 56, was born in Waterbury, Conn., to a working-class family and relied on financial aid to attend AU. He received a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.
Trustees, who voted to terminate Ladner on Monday night, are expected to authorize a presidential search committee next month.
Kerwin was a finalist in two presidential searches at other universities in recent years -- Bucknell University and the University of Baltimore.
"He's been fantastic," said Peter Brusoe, head of the graduate leadership council, who said he hopes Kerwin will stay as president.
The role of acting president is by its nature constrained, and Kerwin said he will be careful not to make any "radical long-term commitments that would compromise the next president or board of trustees" as they set a new direction for the school. Still he said, work has to get done.
"We have issues that come to this desk every day," he said. "They are not going to accumulate. We are going to make decisions and move on."