From Obama’s Cabinet to the Presidency of American U.

January 27, 2017

Michael Nagle, Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, former secretary of Health and Human Services and the next president of American U.: “It’s very important to focus on the impact” of a management decision, “because we often get caught up in what your piece is, your part.”

Sylvia Mathews Burwell is leaving one hot seat for another.

American University announced Thursday that its next president will be Ms. Burwell, who until just days ago was the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration. Applying the Affordable Care Act for the past two years in the face of calls for its repeal was a tough job, but so is running a private liberals-arts university in an era of fierce competition for students and brickbats aimed at the value of higher education itself.

Ms. Burwell is not an academic, but she can boast a broad and impressive set of credentials. A native of tiny Hinton, W.Va., she earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University, then attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and returned with a second bachelors in philosophy, politics, and economics. She worked for a few years at McKinsey & Company, a management-consulting company, before joining Bill Clinton’s campaign for president in 1992. She served several roles in the Clinton administration, including deputy chief of staff. Mr. Obama named her director of the Office of Management and Budget in 2013, and appointed her secretary of Health and Human Services the following year.

Ms. Burwell hasn’t spent all of the last 25 years in Washington, or in federal policy. She was named executive vice president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2001, and in 2011 she became president of the Walmart Foundation.

Ms. Burwell, who doesn't take office until June, talked to The Chronicle about what she can bring to American from her past roles, how her family background fueled her interest in education, and her favorite management-speak. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q. You’re leaving behind a White House cabinet post during one of the most politically contentious periods in recent history, but you’re now taking on one of the hardest jobs in the country, given the financial challenges facing much of higher education, and the current wave of attacks on intellectualism. Why do that?

A. Actually, the challenges are one of the things that attract me most to the university, and the academy. It's a very exciting time.

Learning and education attract me, as well as the fact that at the university at this time, there are a number of both challenges and opportunities, whether those are the economics of how these institutions will function over time or academic freedom. I would add another one, which is the way in which students learn, and approach learning, which is different than when I was at an institution of higher education.

Q. Why do you think the board at American hired you? What can you bring that a more typical candidate who’s previously served as a college president or provost can’t?

A. I would defer to the search committee and the Board of Trustees to consider why they made the selection.

With regard to what I bring to the institution, I think there are a number of things that are relevant. I've had an opportunity to lead large and complex organizations, and this is a large and complex organization. The second thing is the importance of focusing on relationships, and building those relationships, in a place with many and sometimes diverse points of view — that is something that is relevant to the places I've been and to American University.

I know that my experience is not the experience of most presidents coming into this role, and I look forward to taking the steps I need to to make sure I listen and learn at the institution itself — the board, the faculty, the students, the staff, the community we're in — as well as from those who have traveled this path, friends and colleagues like Judy Rodin and Drew Faust.

Q. You spent nearly a decade in leadership positions at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walmart Foundation. What ideas from the foundation world might benefit higher education?

A. There are places of overlap. I had an opportunity to work on the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which is a minority scholarship program that funds about 20,000 scholars around the country. Some of the lessons I learned there were important, about how it was not simply about students getting into the institutions and being funded to go to them, but that there were a number of other important steps to make sure that the students had an integrated experience that was successful. So there are specific tactical lessons that I've learned at Gates and other places.

But some of the broader lessons are about making sure that one prioritizes, has focus, has buy-in into the priorities of an organization, articulates those priorities, that there's contribution to those priorities, and then those priorities become articulated in the direction of the institution.

Q. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the degree to which many universities actually provide access and social mobility to lower-income students. What do you think is the role of a university like American in terms of economic equality?

A. I am the granddaughter of four Greek immigrants, so the idea of education as the key to economic and social mobility in society, that was an emphasis from when I was very young. The academy is a very important part of that, in terms of creating people who have a liberal-arts education that allows them to think and problem solve and be great citizens.

I think that AU has, in recent years under Neil Kerwin's leadership, done a great job in making sure that there's access in term of financial barriers that many students face, whether it's first-time college students or others who might have financial difficulty coming. That's been an important step.

Q. But, as you pointed out, it's not simply a matter of access and finances. There are often further steps that need to be taken to support lower-income students.

A. I think the Reinventing the Student Experience initiative at American, as a part of creating an integrated student experience, is a part of that. I think there may be particular needs for some students, but making sure that one has a very strong, overarching student experience, where students know where and how to get their needs met, is important.

Q. Having worked closely with two presidents of the United States, did you take specific leadership lessons from them that will aid you as president of a university?

A. From each of those leaders, a couple of things stand out. One is the importance of thinking about relationships, and listening and getting input as one thinks about how to move forward. The other I would say, for both of the presidents I've had an opportunity to work with, is listening, deciding, and then being willing to be bold.

Q. In an interview last summer, you were relatively sanguine about threats from Republicans and then-candidate Trump to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and pointed out that many of its provisions were popular and already "in the fabric" of our health-care system. At universities, many adjunct faculty members are worried about their insurance and certain provisions of the law going away. Are you now more concerned that gains brought about by the act will be lost?

A. I wanted to focus today on AU, and as tempting as it is, I'm going to refer you to some of the statements I've made since the election.

Q. College presidents find themselves called on more and more to take a stand on societal issues and events. What's your take on the responsibility of higher-education leaders to speak out on policy topics?

A. The responsibility is to the institution and students and the faculty, to make sure that when one is making decisions, that it serves the institution well. So I think that leads to a situation where those kinds of decisions are on a case-by-case basis in terms of when and where it’s appropriate, and how one makes sure you respect and further the goals of the institution.

Q. You’ve worked in the management-consulting world, and in the federal government, both places with their share of jargon. You’re getting ready to enter higher education, which has its own rich lexicon of peculiar phrases. Is there’s a particular piece of management-speak that you love and think is effective, and is there one you’d banish forever if you could?

A. There are two things that I particularly embrace as part of my management and leadership. The first is the word "impact." It's very important to focus on the impact, because we often get caught up in what your piece is, your part. That's why when you asked the question about when, as a university president, you need to wade into certain social or political issues, it's really, to me, keeping your eye on the ball of what is it you're trying to deliver. Asking what is the important goal, and keeping people focused on that. So "impact" you'll hear time and time again.

To give you a specific example, when I went to HHS, when people were measuring the progress of the Affordable Care Act through the marketplace, we settled very quickly on the core measures of impact as affordability, quality, and access. And access was about the number of people insured through the act, not the number in the marketplace. Getting yourself to focus on the right measures of impact is important.

The second thing that I will mention is that I do things in threes. That probably comes a little bit from my McKinsey training, but even more than that, it is what the mind can remember. Generally speaking, it gets things to the space that it’s memorable and understandable. So you'll often hear me do things in a one, two, and three.

Q. And one you’d banish?

A. I generally don't like the made-up words. You know how sometimes there are words that aren't words, they take a noun and make it into a verb?

We've got a lot of good words. I'm not sure we need to make up more, unless it's something like "emoji," and then I'm OK with it.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at