Aung San Suu Kyi
Fifteen years after being given an AU honorary degree while under house arrest in Burma, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi used the occasion of her first visit to the United States after her release to accept the honor in person. Addressing an enthusiastic crowd of Burmese Americans, Buddhist monks, and democracy advocates of every ethnicity and nationality in September 2012, she began by thanking the university for being one of the very first institutions of higher learning to recognize the Burmese people’s efforts to achieve democracy when it gave her the honorary degree back in January 1997. Because she was not allowed to travel at the time, it was accepted by her late husband, who also read her acceptance speech. “The message that I sent to this university, to use your liberty to promote ours, resounded throughout the world,” she recalled. “That became a motto for many who wanted to help us.”
Back in 1993 when President Clinton chose Ambassador Dennis Ross, currently serving on the SIS Dean’s Council, to become Middle East envoy, the outlook was very different than it is today. Following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War, peace at last seemed attainable. In fact, Ross and fellow diplomats were able to broker several historic peace accords. These days, in the aftermath of the “Arab Awakening”—his umbrella term for the Arab Spring, the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iran’s nuclear power aspirations—Ross sees changes being driven by a dramatically different worldview. Speaking in November 2012 as a part of the SIS Dean’s Discussion series, he described the distinction: “It’s an awakening,” Ross said, “because you have many in the Arab world for the first time seeing themselves as citizens, not subjects. That’s a profound difference. Citizens have rights, they have expectations, they have demands, they can hold their government accountable.”
In early 2013, former Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe returned to Washington and to AU, delivering her first speech since announcing she would leave the Senate the previous year. Her subject: the state of American politics. “I decided to take the fight in a different direction,” she said. “What better place to start than American University?” During her address, Snowe examined the current level of dysfunction in Congress, the political crises produced by brinkmanship at the expense of compromise, and the reasons behind her decision to retire from the Senate. “Policy making has devolved into a series of gotcha votes,” she said. “It’s all about campaigning and not about governing.” The talk ended with the announcement that Snowe was forming her own political action committee, Olympia’s List, to support political candidates willing to build consensus. “I know that Congress can be the solution-driven powerhouse that it was in the past,” she declared.
How do first ladies survive and thrive in their roles? Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, has the answers. An executive in residence in the School of Public Affairs who has launched a program studying first ladies, McBride spoke at the lecture series “American Women: Conversations with AU’s Inspirational Women.” She cited Michelle Obama, “a reluctant warrior” in her husband’s campaign. Aware that she would be heavily scrutinized as the first African American first lady, Obama chose to connect with the public through fashion. But beyond “what to wear,” first ladies must contend with hectic schedules and must develop their own initiatives. “You can be an advocate for policy, but you can’t be a policy maker,” McBride explained. “But issues can be delegated to you, you have a convening authority, people are not going to say no to the first lady calling a meeting on an initiative she’s being asked to lead.”