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American University names new president: Obama Cabinet member Sylvia Mathews Burwell

This April 2014 photo shows President Barack Obama with Sylvia Mathews Burwell as he announced she would be named secretary of health and human services. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

American University announced Thursday that a former top Obama administration official, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, will become its 15th president and the first woman to lead the school in the nation’s capital.

Burwell, 51, was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama in 2013-2014 and then secretary of health and human services until his term ended last week. Her Cabinet post put Burwell on the front lines of overseeing the implementation of Obama’s signature health-care law. She will take over at AU on June 1, succeeding President Cornelius M. “Neil” Kerwin, who is retiring.

“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.”

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Burwell’s jump to academia echoes in some ways a move that one of her government predecessors made 16 years ago. Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, was named president of the University of Miami in 2001 and led that school for 14 years.

But Shalala had extensive academic credentials before her time at HHS, including a doctorate and stints as a tenured professor and then leader of a public college in New York and of the public flagship University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Burwell’s background is much different. She earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University and then, as a Rhodes Scholar, a bachelor’s in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford.

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She does not have a master’s degree or doctorate and has never been a professor or provost. AU, a private institution with 13,000 students and a main campus on Massachusetts Avenue NW, will be the first college or university she leads.

Burwell has other credentials of immense value for a university that aspires to excellence in public and international affairs: deep experience working for two Democratic presidents in Washington and two major national philanthropies. She had posts in the Clinton administration and was president of global development programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was president of the Walmart Foundation. Those connections should help her in fundraising and in growing AU’s national profile.

Crucially, her fans are bipartisan.

Unlike many Obama administration officials, who had testy relations with Capitol Hill, Burwell made a point of cultivating ties with Republicans who had jurisdiction over her department. During hearings this month for her designated successor at HHS, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), lawmakers made a point of praising Burwell.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that “one of the best votes I cast four years ago for Cabinet members was a vote for Sylvia Burwell.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, who was once president of the University of Tennessee, told The Washington Post in a statement: “Sylvia Burwell will make an excellent president of American University — she listens well, she has a strong sense of public purpose, and she is gifted academically.”

On the AU campus Thursday afternoon, a large crowd gathered at the School of International Service for Burwell’s introduction to the university community. They yelled in approval and gave a standing ovation as Jack Cassell, chairman of the board of trustees, noted that she will be the first female president of the 124-year-old school. “It’s awesome,” he said.

Burwell — accompanied by her husband, Stephen Burwell, and their children, Helene, 9, and Matthew, 7 — told the crowd that she had learned from her time in Washington “the importance and the power of common ground.” She said schools like AU can help with that goal, providing a forum for diverse points of view and research to inform public debate. “The academy plays a pivotal role,” she said.

Originally from Hinton, W.Va, Burwell often refers to her small-town roots. She joked in one interview that she and former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack were “rural” members of the Cabinet. She traveled back to West Virginia regularly, saying those experiences helped inform her approach to addressing the nation’s opioid crisis.

Former senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), 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.”

Founded in 1893, AU is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. It is known as a center of political activism and has schools of law, business, public affairs and international service, among other fields. The university has grown more selective in recent years, drawing applicants interested in studying in a city with an increasingly vibrant urban culture and a huge network of federal, international and nonprofit agencies.

The admission rate for the class that entered AU in 2016 was 26 percent, down from 35 percent the year before. As recently as 2009, the rate was 53 percent. The school ranks 74th on the U.S. News and World Report list of national universities, tied with Clark University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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The incumbent president at AU, Kerwin, has led the school since 2005. He announced his retirement in March. Under Kerwin, the university launched major renovations and expansions of its campus, and its endowment stood at about $600 million in 2015.

Burwell said in a telephone interview that she looks forward to building on Kerwin’s record. “The whole organization is ready to take the next steps forward,” she said. “It is a place that embraces innovation and change.”

AU is the second university in the District of Columbia this year to name a new president. Thomas LeBlanc, provost of the University of Miami, will become George Washington University’s president in July.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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