Thanks to its generous donors, American University is stepping boldly into the future. More than 200 AU supporters and friends joined President Sylvia Burwell and AU leadership at the President’s Circle Celebration on November 14 to mark the university’s extraordinary momentum, and the role AU donors play in advancing the opportunities and achievements of the university.
The President’s Circle Celebration, held for the first time in Claudio Grossman Hall at AU’s Washington College of Law, is a longstanding AU tradition. The evening also honored alumna Susan Zirinsky, president and senior executive producer of CBS News, with the Cyrus A. Ansary Medal for her commitment to advancing American University, and for her leadership in promoting journalistic integrity and ensuring a free press.
Momentum through Philanthropy
The President’s Circle annual giving society represents a broad community of generous AU alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends. Numbering more than 670 supporters this year, the combined giving from President’s Circle members makes a significant philanthropic impact by both meeting immediate needs of students and faculty through gifts to AU’s unrestricted funds, and by supporting a diversity of opportunities that strengthen the university. Premiering at the event, the Bold Steps video reflected back to donors the power of their commitment.
"Powered by your generosity, your advocacy, and your philanthropy, we are building a university to honor our past and shape our future,” President Burwell noted in her evening address. Just one year into the Changemakers for a Changing World strategic plan, the university already sees the impact that major investments in AU can make from milestone gifts to inaugurate the Sine Institute, advance key research centers, and strengthen the student experience or support teaching and learning through new facilities. “These gifts build on the annual and specific gifts which impact this university at every level, every year, keeping a steady drumbeat of progress all across campus,” said President Burwell. “Gifts to the AU Fund for Excellence and the Dean’s Funds add up as well. $100 has gone to support lab supplies for our student scientists; $500 to a student’s living expenses for the semester; or $1,000 to book a flight that takes a student overseas to a life-changing study abroad opportunity. There is so much potential on this campus, and we’re only beginning to unlock it."
Zirinsky Presented with 2019 Cyrus A. Ansary Medal
“American University is a place of changemakers,” said Marc Duber, chair of the AU Board of Trustees. “We see that in our president, Sylvia Burwell, and her great vision for American University. We see it in the talent of our students and the skill of our faculty. We see it in the achievement of our alumni like changemaker, Susan Zirinsky, whom we honor tonight.”
Zirinsky, SOC/BA ’74, the first woman to oversee all CBS News programming, spent four decades producing a variety of award-winning programs and documentaries. During her career, Zirinsky covered many of the defining news stories of our time: the Gulf War, the student uprising in Tiananmen Square, the 9/11 attacks, and the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In addition to multiple Emmys, the duPont-Columbia University Award, and the Peabody Award, in October she was inducted into the Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame.
“I have no doubt in my mind that American University gave me my base,” Zirinsky said.
She began her CBS career while still an AU undergraduate living in the dorm. Zirinsky spent weekends peering into garages in the metropolitan area, hoping to spot famed Watergate source Deep Throat. As a student, Zirinsky took a journalism writing course led by professor Ed Bliss, who founded AU’s broadcast journalism program after a 25-year career as an editor, writer, and producer for Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Bliss told Zirinsky that “passion and drive can take you anywhere.” After viewing the award-winning documentary 9/11 that Zirinsky co-executive produced, Bliss wrote, “I have never been as proud of anyone as I am of you for producing that documentary, the historic document of that tragic event.”
“I’m a workhorse; I am not a show pony,” Zirinsky said. “We don’t get into this business looking to be recognized. We’re journalists in search of truth, holding people in power accountable. We are storytellers. Our focus is on others. That drive began right here on the campus of AU.”
Zirinsky’s ties to AU remain strong. She served on the Dean’s Council of the School of Communication and is the inaugural recipient of the SOC Dean’s Award. She gives generously of her time—mentoring students, participating in panels, and supporting career exploration programs.
The Cyrus A. Ansary Medal, established in 1990, is among the highest awards bestowed by American University each year to an individual of great distinction and leadership in civic and corporate affairs, as a role model to American University’s students and alumni. Past recipients include Susan E. Rice, Mark Bergel, Robert Kogod, and J. Willard Marriott Jr. The AU Board of Trustees created the award to recognize the leadership and counsel of Ansary, a trustee from 1969 to 1996 and now chairman emeritus.
The President’s Circle Celebration is never complete without featuring the talent of those on our campus. Guests were welcomed by the AU string quartet (musicians Sarah Paster, CAS-SPA/BA ’20; Bihan Moore, SIS/BA ’21; Robin Miller, SPA/BA ’22; and Bo Liang, CAS-SOC/BA ’23) and treated to music by faculty jazz guitarist Josh Bayer, Musician-in-Residence, during the reception. The program included a scene from AU’s fall musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, performed by cast members Ross Bollinger, CAS/BSBA ’20; Andrew Bondy, CAS/BA ’20; Lily Burka, CAS/BA ’22; Isabelle Jennings Pickering, CAS/BA ’20; Graciela Rey, CAS/BA ’20; and Bekah Umansky, CAS-SOC/BA ’22; Nathan Blustein, instructor and music director for the theatre/musical theatre program, accompanied the cast.
Bold Steps for AU
“Together, we continue this momentum by stepping boldly into a future where our thoughts, ideas, actions, service, and generosity transform this institution. This is only the beginning,” said Courtney Surls, vice president of development and alumni relations. In the coming year AU will launch a comprehensive fundraising effort to build on its successes, meet the challenges ahead, and position AU as a leader in higher education. AU’s generous donors and the involvement of the AU community are essential to securing its potential.
“Five years from now, what will we be creating?” Zirinsky posed in her keynote speech. “Will we be creating something that matters, that has an impact? The answer has to be yes. This is our time to prove we are the future. That AU is the future. Everyone in this room can make a difference. It’s time. Come with me.”