You are here: American University Year in Review 2020 On a Mission to Make Monumental Change

On a Mission to Make Monumental Change

In a year of setbacks, sacrifices, and loss, our community was defined by resilience, positive change, and hope. Challenge after challenge, we stepped up and helped out as we focused on what our people, and the world, needed most. We advanced our mission with the determination and compassion that make us changemakers. Because whatever the circumstances, Eagles wouldn’t be Eagles if we didn’t find ways to make the world a better place.


From virtual dance rehearsals and pro bono consulting to internships that confront today’s challenges, AU reshaped its high-quality education to fit an online world.

CHOREOLAB, a class for emerging student choreographers, redefined what dancing, rehearsing, and performing looked like during the pandemic. Dancers from around the country, many in different time zones, came together to collaborate on pieces through a mosaic of screens.

“Rehearsing through a screen was definitely a shift, but I chose to embrace the challenge as an opportunity to push my creativity,” said first-time choreographer Natalia Cervantes, CAS/BA ’23.

CHOREOLAB students collaborate on pieces virtually from different time zones much like they did when they were on campus.  

US News and World Report 2020 Rankings. #11 Study Abroad, #25 Undergraduate Teaching, #43 First-Year Experience, #35 Top Innovative Universities.

Students in the Kogod in Practice initiative adjusted to what business as usual meant during a year that was anything but normal. Working in teams as pro bono consultants, they solved a range of business issues for DC clients. 

Lisa Francis, Kogod/MBA ’21, consulted for Great Dwellings, a start-up hospitality firm, reevaluating an industry currently undergoing a moment of reflection due to the pandemic. For Great Dwellings founder Karl Scarlett, the team far exceeded his expectations. “They have given us insights and perspectives that we certainly would not have had on our own,” he said.

Washington Semester Program participant Andrew Taber had planned to spend his summer fully immersed in the DC experience. Instead, the Emory University junior took his courses and interned with Creative Investment Research (CIR) from his Wisconsin home. 

One of the “really cool things” about Taber’s internship was conducting original research on how much corporations and institutions had donated to Black Lives Matter. After CIR founder and CEO William Cunningham announced the figure—$1.68 billion—in Black Enterprise magazine on June 10, the pledges rose to $8.8 billion by the end of August. 

“Andrew’s research made a profound difference at a crucial moment in time,” said Cunningham.


Our community leaned on the qualities that make us who we are—engaged, generous, and driven—to find ways to connect. Though we couldn’t replace in-person comradery, we found ways to bring the spirit of AU through our screens.

“We are doing really cool things that are bringing people together across distances,” said AU acting provost Peter Starr.

1,338* Virtual Events To Share Knowledge And Nurture Community During the Pandemic. *Estimate based on informal survey.

Twenty members of the AU Chamber Singers perform together through a collaboration of the audio technology and music programs. 

Starr points to the American University Chamber Singers as one of his favorite examples of that togetherness. During a trial run in November, 20 singers from around the country performed together in real time—virtually. Accomplished through the collaboration of AU’s audio technology and music programs and innovative Jacktrip software, the performance was a resounding success.

 “The results are a testament to the tenacity of the singers and their openness to learning,” said AU performing arts chair Daniel Abraham. “With this success, we have achieved something well beyond any of our peers nationally and have provided our students with a set of tools for artistic consideration and career readiness for the future.”

In addition to creating new opportunities for our Eagles, traditional events, like Eagle Summit orientation, All-American Welcome, and Family Week returned virtually. All-American Welcome featured nearly 50 activities and events for our first-year and transfer students, from Virtual Movie Night and Regional Mixers to Drago Bingo. Wellness initiatives, like the personalized platform You@American, help students assess their challenges, set personalized goals, and find support. 

AU athletes benefit from $4.5 million in philanthropic gifts though Bender Arena was empty for most of 2020 due to the pandemic.

As we focused on the immediate needs of our community, we also planned for the future. Gifts from the Bender Foundation and AU trustee Stephanie M. Bennett-Smith will support facilities and student-athletic experiences in the post-COVID world. The Bender Foundation donated $3 million to the Center for Athletic Performance to expand health, wellness, and fitness resources for all students on campus. The gift underscores our commitment to student well-being inside and outside the classroom.

Gifts totaling $1.5 million from Bennett-Smith will support the renamed Stephanie M. Bennett-Smith AU Eagles Life Skills and Leadership Academy, which expands student-athletes’ leadership skills at AU and beyond. 

The gifts enhance AU’s ongoing strategy “to create more gathering spaces so our students can come together and find new ways to connect, learn, and succeed,” said AU president Sylvia Burwell. “Even in these difficult times, we are bolstered by caring community members who are committed to this vision and the well-being of our students.”


Our commitment to creating a community where all members thrive is critical, now more than ever. Our students and scholars continued to shine a light on injustices across the country, and we made institutional changes to support them as we strive to break barriers that stand in the way of an equitable future. Racial equity though-leaders—like Ijeoma Oluo, best-selling author of So You Want to Talk About Race—came to campus to share their expertise, passion, and compassion. 

AU launched its new Office of Equity and Title IX to oversee the university’s efforts to prevent and respond to discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault with civil rights enforcement advocate and Title IX veteran Leslie T. Annexstein at the helm. The office will further our commitment to combat structural racism, eliminate gender-based violence, and remove barriers to participation and success. 

Leslie Annexstein joins AU as Title IX officer and the first associate vice president of equity.

50 percent of new tenure-line faculty and 36 percent of new term faculty are people of color

The office is one aspect of our pursuit of equity at AU. AU’s inclusive excellence plan has entered its third year and second phase. Through the plan, AU has expanded access and affordability, enhanced training and learning in racial literacy and racial equity mindedness—especially among senior leadership—and increased recruitment of faculty of color.

AU continues to make institutional changes in its pursuit for racial equity.  

Under the leadership of Christine Platt, interim managing director, and Malini Ranganathan, interim faculty director, the Antiracist Research Policy Center (ARPC) has amplified the work of AU scholars, partnered with external practitioners and activists, and hosted events to foster racial justice. Our scholars moderated invaluable discussions on black feminism, climate justice, and maternal health equity. 

In August, more than 13,000 attended Empowering Educators: A Convening on Racial Equity in Education. The APRC event focused on supporting teaching professionals so they can have effective, courageous conversations with students about race and social justice. The event discussed resources informed by leading anti-bias and antiracism experts—including Platt—and featured a keynote address by Jason Reynolds, an award-winning author of young adult fiction.

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion publishes its second first-generation yearbook in 2020. 

When Platt and Reynolds spoke about how educators can impact students’ lives, Reynolds urged honest conversations about race. “If we’re going to talk about the Civil War, let’s really talk about the Civil War,” Reynolds said. “All I’m asking is for educators to make sure they’re equipped with the information to unpack it and to actually give it true life.”

For the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), its dedication to students means being responsive to their needs and adapting programming to what’s going on in the world. This year, CDI has met students where they are and where they want to be by:   

  • launching the second edition of the first-generation yearbook
  • hosting events for students registered to live in Black Affinity Housing, after the launch was delayed due to COVID-19
  • delivering care packages to students living in emergency housing
  • hosting 70 intergroup dialogues with students about race, gender, class, faith, and more
  • helping to launch a new self-service platform in Eagle Service that allows students to use their chosen name, pronouns, and gender identity in many AU systems


Our pursuit of positive change stretches beyond campus as our scholars use their skills to explore the world and shape the future. And over the past year, many have made significant contributions to their fields—like those at AU’s Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI).

At CMSI, comedy and culture are serious business. They also play an integral role in social justice. CMSI executive director and SOC professor Caty Borum Chattoo published two books in 2020 on the roles documentary and comedy play in social change.

“Creativity, entertainment, and storytelling tells us what’s wrong, so these forces supply social critique,” Borum Chattoo said. “But culture also provides civic imagination. It shows us what the world looks like when it’s better and the kind of world we want to shape for the future—a world that is more just, more accepting of a full array of lived experiences, and more expansive.”

SOC professor Caty Borum Chattoo published two books in 2020 on the roles that comedy (pictured) and documentary play in social change.  

CMSI Raised a Record $1.9 Million In 2020

CMSI’s Yes and Laughter Lab is a competitive incubation lab and pitch program that brings new traditionally marginalized voices into the entertainment industry and connects them with network executives, social justice organizations, and activists, like Netflix, Color of Change, and Define American. A script from one of this year’s finalists, Thaddeus McCants, has already been purchased by BET. It focuses on a formerly incarcerated young Black man opening his own legal weed dispensary.

The Center for Neuroscience and Behavior will solve problems by moving research in their new lab to policy through university partnerships.  

As the sciences at AU continue to grow, we’re approaching the field in novel ways. For instance, a new university-wide Center for Neuroscience and Behavior is developing partnerships with AU’s policy experts with the aim of bettering society.

Improving quality of life has always been the AU way, said Starr. “AU has always been public focused. It’s in our DNA. And what these crises [like the pandemic] have showed us is just why scholarship for public impact is critical.”

AU Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience Terry Davidson, whose groundbreaking research focuses on diet, obesity, and dementia, will lead the center and the new Department of Neuroscience, with a faculty of nationally and internationally known scientists. The center will continue increasing its understanding of the brain, nervous system, and behavior while working with others to integrate science with public policy.

“This concentration of faculty strength and reputation, combined with the opening of the new state-of-the-art Hall of Science, will make AU more visible to the national and international scientific community,” said Davidson. “In turn, this will facilitate the advancement of our already strong undergraduate and graduate neuroscience academic programs by increasing flexibility in our course offerings and staffing.” 


Leaders educate, convene, and realize their purpose at AU. Courtesy of the student-led Kennedy Political Union (KPU), journalists, activists, presidential candidates, a political strategist, and an immunologist talked about their changemaking with our community. 

Despite the challenges of a virtual environment, KPU engagement has been great, with more people being able to attend online. This goes for speakers as well, like civil rights leader Angela Davis, who spoke from her California home. “As tired as students might be from Zoom classes, as exhausted as they might be from the world, they will engage in things they care about,” said KPU director Amrutha Chatty, SOC/BA ’21.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and an honorary Eagle himself, spoke during AU Family Week about a safe process for reopening in spring 2021, the dangers of distrusting science, and the need for a societal commitment to address racial health disparities. The conversation with AU president Sylvia Burwell was mentioned by Politico, CNN, Reuters, and U.S. News and World Report.

KPU welcomes NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci during AU Family Week. Clockwise are Fauci, AU president Sylvia Burwell, and KPU director Amrutha Chatty.

2020 KPU Speakers: Bob Woodard, Yamiche Alcindor, Angela Davis, Noname    Julian Castro, Andrew Yang, Anthony Fauci, MD, Symone Sanders.

Also making news was Sarah McBride, SPA/BA ’13. Since age 13, McBride pursued advocacy and politics to create more space for people to live openly and authentically. She interned at the Obama White House and worked on LGBTQ issues at the Center for American Progress. Now she represents Delaware’s District 1, making her the nation’s first openly transgender state senator. 

The Human Rights Campaign spokesperson and author credits her participation in AU Student Government and advocacy for the insights, courage, and confidence to come out as transgender to her family, then to the campus community in a 2012 op-ed in The Eagle. The piece made national headlines and garnered massive support from her AU community.

Her state senate victory would not have been possible without the AU community, McBride said. Her campaign team featured six alumni, and current students and faculty helped amplify her message. “I always have said that if America was a little bit more like American, we'd be in a much better place,” McBride said.

For his work as a renowned historian, alumnus Lonnie Bunch receives the Cy Ansary Medal from AU president Sylvia Burwell.  

Alumna Sarah McBride represents Delaware’s District 1 as the nation’s first openly transgender state senator.  

McBride joins the ranks of AU alumni who have a history of making history—like Lonnie Bunch, CAS/BA ’74, MA ’76. The 14th secretary of the Smithsonian and founding director of its National Museum of African American History received the 2020 Cyrus A. Ansary Medal. One of the university’s highest honors, the award is named for an esteemed chairman emeritus of the AU Board of Trustees. Presented at the university’s annual President’s Circle Celebration, Bunch was recognized for his extraordinary commitment and leadership both within the university community and within his profession as a renowned curator, historian, and educator.

As the first African American and historian to lead the Smithsonian, Bunch wants the institution to reflect the inclusivity he wishes to see in America. And he credits AU for his success. “AU gives people an opportunity to find themselves in ways they would never have imagined before they got here,” Bunch said.