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Memorandum November 18, 2020

AU Community
Marc N. Duber, Chair, Board of Trustees
Board of Trustees November 2020 Meeting Summary

The late fall meeting of the American University Board of Trustees was an important opportunity to review the university’s progress in responding to the demands of COVID-19 while also focusing on the critical planning underway to ramp up our activity for spring 2021 and beyond. While we continue to meet virtually, the trustees were grateful for opportunities to interact directly with AU community members, which has become a valued tradition during our board meetings.

We hosted a Zoom luncheon discussion with approximately 40 faculty members from all eight schools and colleges. It was inspiring to hear our faculty talk about their engagements with students and the innovations in learning and instruction. They shared heartfelt stories about collaborating with students and supporting each other through the stress of the pandemic. Our faculty are confronting the same range of obstacles that many are facing, from childcare to Zoom fatigue; the trustees were grateful for the dialogue about how the faculty are working through both success and struggle. As we shared with the faculty luncheon attendees, I want to express the trustees’ deep appreciation for the dedication of all our faculty through these difficult times.

As noted by President Sylvia Burwell, these are challenging times for higher education, with difficult situations for students, faculty, and staff alike. While American University is facing these same headwinds, we are moving forward on our vision and mission. We have an opportunity to thrive on the other side of the pandemic, thanks to the achievements of our faculty and staff, our strategy, and our focus on delivering the best possible education for our students. At a time when the problems can seem unending, American University continues its momentum in so many areas, from U.S. News and World Report rankings (#25 in undergraduate teaching and #35 in innovation) to student achievement to faculty research and scholarship.

President Burwell provided an overview of spring planning, the ramp up of activity in many areas of the university, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19. Throughout our response to the pandemic, the university continued our forward progress in many strategic areas and learned numerous important lessons that will inform our future. President Burwell reported on the work to increase campus engagements, including additional face-to-face classes and expanded housing opportunities in the spring semester. The goal is to achieve expansive summer and fall operations, with a particular emphasis on experiential learning and a full residential experience in the fall 2021 semester. This work will continue to be done in cooperation with the DC government and in compliance with health and safety protocols. The trustees expressed their support for this approach and their appreciation for the simultaneous dedication to health and safety and innovative thinking to expand operations. While the ramp up of activity is comprised of many components and is not a simple “on/off” switch, the university is on the correct path to safely enhance community engagements and activity.

COVID-19 also continues to present financial challenges. Mitigation efforts to date and the ongoing focus on enrollment and retention have kept the budget shortfalls within the university’s projections. However, the finances can still be greatly affected by spring enrollment levels and expenses related to COVID-19 safety protocols. The trustees engaged in a discussion of how to balance the many financial needs for both the current environment and advance long-term planning and investments. This will be a key focus as we continue to address COVID-19.  

Vice Presidents Matt Bennett and Courtney Surls presented concepts for the upcoming AU brand and fundraising campaign efforts. The integrated programs will elevate key AU themes and call the community to action in support of strategic priorities. The trustees discussed opportunities to engage our key constituencies through these initiatives when they are activated in the spring semester.

The trustees welcomed Elizabeth Worden back to the board a faculty trustee, as she was appointed to complete the remaining eight months on Karen Baehler’s term. Professor Baehler resigned from the board after our last meeting when she was appointed AU’s Associate Dean of Faculty. We also welcomed new campus representatives, heard updates from the student, staff, and faculty constituencies, and thanked Rob Johnson, who is completing his very successful term as chair of the Alumni Board. The information and participation from the campus representatives is incredibly valuable to the trustees, and their perspectives help shape our consideration of critical issues.

The Board of Trustees will host its next meetings on March 3–5, 2021. Our warm wishes to the AU community for the upcoming holiday season and our thanks for your tremendous dedication during the challenging times of COVID-19. I wish everyone good health and please stay safe.