Memorandum September 22, 2017
- AU Community
- Jack C. Cassell, Chairman, Board of Trustees
- Board of Trustees Early Fall 2017 Retreat & Meeting Summary
The Board of Trustees held their annual retreat on Thursday, September 14, at Airlie, American University's conference center. I want to share with you a number of newsworthy items that came out of the lively discussion and business session.
This was the first meeting with President Burwell at the helm; we began the retreat by hearing updates on a range of matters and her thoughts and ideas from her first 15 weeks. Since reporting to AU on June 1, she has conducted a "listening and learning" tour that included visits with the schools, administrative and academic units, campus operations, trustees, and neighbors—in a focused effort to learn about AU. As she has in many of her campus conversations—she also asked the board their opinion on "what distinguishes AU; what one thing would you change; what one thing would you keep?" Answers to these questions will help our campus community establish priorities as we create a new strategic plan, launch a capital campaign, and prepare for AU's future.
In a brief business session, four actions were taken, which included three faculty appointments with tenure, all in the College of Arts and Sciences—Michael Brenner, as professor of history; Kim Blankenship, as professor of sociology; and Deanna Kerrigan, as professor of sociology and director of the Center on Health, Risk and Society. The board approved the selection of the new student trustee-elect—Saira Grewal, a junior who is a musical theatre and computer science (double) major in CAS. She is in line to become the next student trustee (succeeding Valentina Fernandez) after the May 2018 meeting, and would be the first CAS student so selected.
The board also voted to increase AU's debt capacity to help fund the university's capital improvement program and take advantage of historically low interest rates. It also approved a two-year exception to board policy for WAMU for the receipt of substantial undesignated bequests, to enable the station to rebuild reserves and have capital for special projects and initiatives.
The retreat featured presentations to foster board discussion on a number of critical topics. Makeba Clay, our diversity and inclusion consultant, gave an initial report on her findings as she helps AU become a more inclusive university. While identifying positive steps taken or planned, she also identified key challenges we face in becoming inclusive, as a number of our students of color do not feel included at American University. Commendable progress has been made, but there is substantial work still to do.
Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Courtney Surls led a presentation along with our fundraising consultant, Peter Lasher, from Grenzebach, Glier and Associates, to help prepare the board for the important next steps in planning a capital campaign. It was a good news/bad news report in many ways—as they outlined things we already know—that historically, private philanthropic support at American University has been very low, and that must change as philanthropy must play more significant role in AU's future. But the good news—is the prospects are there, the energy and commitment is growing, and we have a wonderful "moment in time" to align our new president, new strategic plan, and campaign objectives in a coordinated way.
To take AU to the next level, nothing will be more important than a successful capital campaign and a significant and increased role by the board in its success.
Vice President of Communications Terry Flannery presented an outline of anticipated topics that AU (and all of higher education) should prepare for during the academic year. Terry does an annual list, based on issues in the public sphere often prompted by current national, international or local events, federal government actions, or topics of intense campus focus.
In the late afternoon, we were pleased to host Rick Legon, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards, to lead the board in a discussion on how to be more effective. He encouraged the board to be more strategic in focus; improve its connections and communications with campus; and focus on quality as a driving force for AU's future.
The retreat concluded with a presentation by Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance and Treasurer Doug Kudravetz, who updated the board on the renovations and upgrades underway at Airlie to help make it a stronger destination for conferences, events, and recreational visitors.
The next full board gathering will be for the fall meeting, November 16–17 on the AU campus.