Megan Litke came to work at American University in 2014 to help solve problems.
She considered AU a place where she could make a meaningful difference based on its reputation as an incubator for problem solving.
When she arrived on campus in 2014, Litke’s job was to manage the university’s green buildings initiative. Litke and like-minded colleagues helped push AU forward on carbon neutrality and sustainability in the six years that followed. The university set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2020, but AU reached its mark two years early and became the first urban campus and the first research university in the US to achieve carbon neutrality.
“Working to create meaningful change — it’s why I came to AU,” said Litke, now AU’s Director of Sustainability Programs. “AU finds unique, innovative solutions to problems. This university, its students, its staff, and faculty understand the responsibility we have to make a difference.”
That attitude — to take on the issues facing the U.S. and the world — has inspired American University’s new brand campaign, “Challenge Accepted,” which AU unveiled on April 19. The campaign highlights the ways students, staff, and faculty step up to find solutions to challenges both local and global. The campaign builds on AU’s Changemakers for a Changing World strategic plan highlighting examples of the AU community affecting meaningful change. As part of the strategic plan, AU’s new brand tells the story of the university’s enduring and emerging strengths.
“As changemakers, we boldly leverage the power and purpose of community to make a greater impact in our changing world,” said President Sylvia M. Burwell. “Challenge Accepted tells the stories of AU – from being the nation’s first carbon-neutral university, to scholarship that advances civil discourse and democracy, to our deep partnership with our Washington, DC community.”
American University is a place that empowers students, faculty, staff, and alumni to pursue their passions and build better communities. The new campaign, signs of which will be evident around campus, underscores AU’s purposeful work. [link to microsite]
Litke, sees meeting the challenges of sustainability and carbon neutrality as an opportunity to impact communities both local and international.
In tackling the challenge of climate change, AU reduced emissions by generating electricity with 2,500 solar panels on campus and nearly a quarter-million more at a solar farm in North Carolina.
Ten of the buildings on campus earned LEED certification and include energy efficiencies. Campus buildings installed green roofs and sunshades for natural cooling. While AU can’t yet eliminate all emissions with renewable energy, the university supports programs to offset its carbon footprint, such as planting hundreds of trees in parts of DC where there was a diminished urban canopy.
But the offsets have also made an impact far beyond the reaches of campus. In Kenya, AU has funded the construction of cookstoves, which create local jobs and bolster air quality in homes.
Students have also embraced their part — about 85% of students commute sustainably, and every campus shuttle runs on biodiesel.
AU is a leader in sustainability among US universities, and Litke receives frequent questions from other universities that want to reach carbon neutrality or want to make thoughtful investments in offsets.
“A number of people understand sustainability is a unique challenge,” Litke said. “But it’s different here. People are working on solutions and see the ripple effects that can come from their work. The AU community understands their place, and they want to make a difference.”
Leading by Example
One doesn’t have to look very far to see the challenges in today’s civil discourse.
From talk radio to cable news to the newspaper opinion pages to the halls of Congress, finding substantive debate can prove elusive.
The AU community has taken on this seemingly intractable issue by launching the Project on Civil Discourse (PCD) in 2018, determined to be an incubator for free speech and responsible discussion.
The PCD helps students learn to balance the right to free speech and the right to live free of bias, violence, and oppression. Students learn to see disagreements not as a roadblock but as an opportunity to find solutions.
"Some of the richest, most energized conversations in my classes were taking place when we started talking about college itself, and how professors and students discuss political identity, political expression, personal expression, racism, transphobia, and religious belief,” said Lara Schwartz, PCD director and SPA professor.
In two years, PCD has created curricula to bolster public discourse, published a newsletter and a blog, and selected speakers with diverse perspectives. It also launched Peer Facilitators, with about 15 students trained to facilitate discussions on challenging topics.
"Students learn to separate people from problems and encourage their peers to move from positions to interests to find common ground," Schwartz said. "Instead of getting into a debate, we presume that the students are collaboratively solving a problem together."
While PCD helps frame debate on campus and send students into the world with skills to foster civil discourse, AU’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) is creating new ways to battle extremist speech.
Under director and extremism expert Cynthia Miller-Idriss, PERIL created a toolkit in partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center to help parents, educators and others recognize the warning signs of radicalization and create effective interventions.
Working in Our Backyard
AU’s Humanities Truck first hit DC’s streets in 2018, using a high-tech lab to connect scholars to the DC community.
The faculty Truck Fellows guide programming for DC residents to include photo exhibits, conduct and showcase research and develop oral histories. A mobile neighborhood storytelling lab has presented projects on LGBTQ activism, the Federal City Shelter, and local responses to climate change.
The pandemic temporarily halted the truck’s previous mission, but that didn’t stop Truck Fellows from taking on a new challenge. Understanding that the pandemic was exacerbating food insecurity, the Fellows transitioned the truck to a mobile grocery distribution service.
“The ways in which people share food is really how people build communities,” said Dan Kerr, the program director and CAS professor.
Students have joined CAS professor Ludy Grandas to bring bags of groceries to day laborers in Northeast Washington.
“We are saying to our communities that we are here in times of crisis. We are here for you,” says Grandas.
Students from Kogod have stepped up in the community as well, helping DC eighth-graders at LaSalle Backus Education Campus in Northeast DC apply to highly competitive magnet high schools. AU’s peer consultants help students, all of whom qualify for free and reduced lunches, work with the essay portion of their magnet entrance package. They’ve also checked in during the pandemic to bond over challenges, and consultants work to build confidence in the students.
The benefits are reciprocal, said Miguel Wilson, a senior majoring in business administration who began volunteering as a sophomore, “Getting more connected to DC and its residents have been an integral part of my time at AU.”
Working with Washington is one of the tenants of AU’s strategic plan, as the university partners with local government, non-profits, businesses and others to support local schools, enrich arts and culture and promote economic development.
A Healthy Approach
More than a year after the pandemic began, a vast challenge blocked a return to normalcy.
Without robust COVID-19 testing, the American University campus would have a difficult time resuming safe on campus operations this coming fall.
Few feel the emptiness quite like Fanta Aw, AU’s vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence.
“I miss the heartbeat of the campus (on the quad) where I have the opportunity to run into students and see how they're doing and to engage them because I'm first and foremost an educator,” Aw said. “I miss the opportunities to interact with my colleagues to learn from them and for us to learn together. And I miss this notion of what it means to be in the community and have community in this way.”
AU is on track to have a semblance of normalcy, albeit with masks, this fall in large part because of the university’s investment in a mobile testing laboratory.
The mobile lab, which began testing in early March, can process more than 50,000 tests per week with a quick and accurate saliva-based test. But the lab won’t just aid in the return of AU students. Catholic University, Marymount University, and Gallaudet University joined the initiative. So did Baltimore City Public Schools, underscoring how AU’s work to confront challenges impacts the larger community.
“What this means for the community is to have a robust testing program that allows us to increase testing capacity to do appropriate screening early enough so we can take the measures that we know are critical for containment,” Aw said. “So, this will help really with this other big part of the puzzle that we know is important. It means a safer community. It means responding to what we know from the science works.”
The COVID-19 readiness work is a massive undertaking. It requires cooperation from everyone, from the president to the leadership in the Office of Campus Life, from health ambassadors keeping the university safe to the AU community members accepting personal responsibility.
"The idea is universities should be problem-solving, finding solutions to critical issues of our time,” Aw said.
And finding those solutions is at the heart of "Challenge Accepted."