For his many achievements as a renowned curator, historian, and educator, Lonnie Bunch, CAS/BA ’74, CAS/MA ’76, received the 2020 Cyrus A. Ansary Medal on Tuesday, October 27, at the 39th President’s Circle Celebration. An annual event held virtually this year, the President’s Circle Celebration brings together American University’s most generous donors to recognize their sustained support and loyalty to AU.
With nearly 1,000 donors, fiscal year 2020 President’s Circle members have helped AU meet new and emerging needs as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, this past year, donors overall gave more than $800,000 in unrestricted gifts to the AU Fund for Excellence, surpassing the university’s $750,000 target for the first time in history.
Awarded annually since 1990, the Cyrus A. Ansary Medal is one of the university’s highest honors. Named for AU’s esteemed alumnus and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus, the Ansary Medal recognizes university community members who demonstrate extraordinary leadership within AU and their professions and have made significant achievements in service to AU or for the benefit of the community. Ansary and his wife, Jan, participated in Tuesday’s event along with their children and grandchildren.
Bunch, whose AU degrees are in African American history, is the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian, where he oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, and numerous other centers and units. He is the first African American and the first historian to hold the position.
“I have had the honor to work with Lonnie since I started here at American University, and I have found his guidance and wisdom crucial as AU continues moving forward,” said AU President Sylvia M. Burwell.
Bunch’s long history with the Smithsonian began while he pursued his master’s degree at AU. From 1989 through 2000, he held several positions at the National Museum of American History and served as the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs from 1994 to 2000. Bunch also served as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In this role, he realized an ambitious vision to develop a destination devoted to the African American story, which has impacted millions of visitors since opening in 2016. He has also held leadership roles with the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and the Chicago Historical Society.
A prominent national voice, Bunch served on the advisory boards of the American Association of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History. He has taught at several universities across the country, including AU. Bunch is also a widely published author, writing on topics that include the Black military experience, the American presidency and all-Black towns in the American West, diversity in museum management, and the impact of funding and politics on American museums. He has received numerous awards and honors throughout his life and career, including appointments to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and a Freedom Medal from the Roosevelt Institute.
During the President’s Circle Celebration, Bunch reflected on his time at AU, which he credits as the foundation for his success.
“[As a student], I loved the generosity of the faculty...in giving of their scholarship and themselves. That notion of feeling that AU was home was really important,” he said. “Today, the generosity of faculty is just as strong. AU gives people an opportunity to find themselves in ways they would never have imagined before they got here. It creates possibilities for students and faculty across disciplines—that is a great strength of AU.”
President Burwell also joined Bunch for a discussion, followed by an audience Q and A. The two covered various topics, including how the pandemic may bring about positive, lasting change in higher education and beyond.
“We have to recognize that this is a moment where we reimagine ourselves—not how will we get through this, but that we will be able to thrive on the other side,” Bunch said.
They also discussed the Smithsonian’s future and the power of philanthropy for such institutions, embracing new technologies in museums and universities, and "listening as a concept of leadership” during a time of disruption and division. Bunch also shared that receiving the Ansary Medal during President Burwell’s leadership is particularly meaningful.
“We are grateful to the Ansary family for establishing such an important legacy at AU through this award,” said Courtney L. Surls, vice president of development and alumni relations. “Secretary Bunch’s expertise, accomplishments, and accolades demonstrate the incredible breadth and integrity of his work. We are thrilled to share his voice and perspective with our President’s Circle community, whose generosity is critical in helping AU lead for the future.”
Watch the virtual event, including President Burwell's conversation with Secretary Lonnie Bunch, below.