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Memorandum March 28, 2016

American University Community
Jack Cassell, Chairman, Board of Trustees
Presidential Transition

President Neil Kerwin informed you today of his intention to step down in May 2017. True to form, long-term and careful planning has been integral to Neil's decision to leave the presidency as our ten-year strategic plan nears completion, punctuating an era of remarkable transformation for American University. Neil has been the architect of that plan, and we are enormously grateful for all that he has helped us accomplish.

Neil Kerwin brought transparency, openness, planning, and strategic thinking to an institution that was confronting governance and leadership challenges in 2005. His steadfast insistence on effective planning, shaped by wide participation and linked to resource allocation, provided a roadmap for a university that is now measurably stronger in academic quality, financial position, facilities, and stature. A few excerpts from the conclusion of the 2014 Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation report capture the sweeping nature of the changes:

"American University, inclusive of its trustees, administrative leadership, faculty, staff, students, and alumni has been deeply engaged in a transformation exercise since 2008 . . . Overall, the transformation exercise has been an extremely successful one . . . The entire American University community is to be commended for its efforts and its success; American University is stronger, more vibrant, more relevant, and better positioned as a result of what has transpired."

Neil has elevated the university and advanced areas vital to its continued progress. The Kerwin era will be remembered for:

  • a new level of academic and research rigor;
  • a culture of tackling the great issues;
  • a commitment to make the university more affordable, accessible, and diverse;
  • a reduction of the university's carbon footprint and investment in sustainability;
  • increased engagement with alumni;
  • enhanced recognition and reputation; and
  • a period of greater impact in Washington, DC, across the nation, and around the world.


A Decade of Transformation


A full accounting of the university's transformation is shared on, but just a few measures show how much progress we have achieved under Neil Kerwin's leadership:

  • The demand for undergraduate admission to AU has never been greater. Today, only one in four applicants is admitted to AU. A record number of applications for Fall 2016 and rapid increases in yield rate (the percentage who accept an offer of admission) over the last two years mean that AU has become much more selective, so as not to exceed capacity for classes and residence halls. The result: an admit rate of 25.7 percent for first-year applicants, a drop of almost 20 percent from just two years ago.
  • Research and scholarship are more rigorous and intensive. The university's research classification by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education moved from the lowest tier among research universities to the middle tier, Doctoral: Higher Research Activity. The reclassification is a result of strategic decisions to expand AU's array of doctoral programs, as well as a reflection of increased productivity in externally funded research. AU is now grouped with universities like Dartmouth and William and Mary.
  • Financial stability and growth are reflected in bond ratings and endowment. Ratings agencies consider a host of factors, including demand, reserves, financial statements, and debt, when they advise potential investors and creditors about the financial position of universities. AU's rating is one of few private universities to improve during the recession and continues to be strong. Moody's rating of AU today is A1, up from an A2 rating in 2005. Standard & Poor's rates AU an A+ today, up from an A in 2005. Our endowment, with careful investment and management, has doubled from $272 to $550 million.
  • The university's transformation is changing perceptions, and our reputation is growing. With intentional commitments to increase visibility and recognition, AU's momentum is noticed. One measure is our position in the top 100 of U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges over the last ten years. AU is one of the fastest movers on the list of national universities at 72 today, up from 87 in 2005.


Celebration and Transition


We will have the opportunity over the next year to congratulate Neil on all that he has helped AU to accomplish and to express our gratitude for the university he has led with integrity, careful planning, and wide participation. In due time, we will plan for a celebration with Neil, Ann, and their family to commemorate his legacy.

Now we must turn our attention to the opportunity Neil has given us. Our transformation and rise among universities gives us extraordinary momentum and allows us to think even more ambitiously as we kick off the search for the next president of American University. Mindful of Neil's intentions to step down when he completes his current contract, the board has been planning for the search and transition. We will begin with the announcement of the search committee, to be led by past board chair Jeff Sine and with the introduction of the search firm. This firm will help us develop a timeline and process to ensure wide participation and input to shape expectations for the next presidency. I will share more on our plans within the next week.

Join me now in thanking Neil for his leadership and congratulating him on an extraordinarily successful tenure as president of one of the greatest universities in the nation.