Critical. Subversive. Irrepressible.


Critical. Subversive. Irrepressible.


Critical. Subversive. Irrepressible.


AU president search had limited student, late faculty input
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Professor profile: Cornelius Kerwin

Dr. Cornelius Kerwin is a government and public policy professor and President Emeritus. He served as American University’s 14th president from 2005 until 2017. He was previously Interim President, Provost, Dean of the School of Public Affairs and a student at AU. Interview edited for length and clarity

Q: Why did you want to teach courses after stepping down as president? 

A: Because that’s where I began, you know. My life started doing it. I never expected to be anything I ended up being. When I left the presidency, I did because the board and I had a great working relationship, but I probably could have stayed for another term. But I had reached an age where there were other things that I wanted to be able to do, that I knew I couldn’t do. Either to the extent I wanted, or at all, because of the appropriateness of it if I stayed as president. And one of those things was to teach on a more regular basis. So when I left the presidency, I took a little bit of time off and then I came back to where I started. The other thing is that I was in the first group of undergraduates that moved into this building. It was under construction when I was a sophomore, it was finished when I became a junior. This is where it started and I thought that, if I’m going to close out a life, doing it in the classroom working with students is how I wanted to do it. There are other things that I’m involved in now. I’m on a number of boards. I advise from time to time, consult on things if people think I’ve got something to offer, but it was never a question as to whether I teach. I mean, as long as they’d have me back, I’d do it. 

Q: What do you enjoy about teaching? 

A: I enjoyed being surprised. I enjoy hearing insights from people who may not have the depth of my reading, but grasp material and come up with something really innovative. I’ve been teaching graduate students primarily since I came back. People in our Master of Public Administration and Master of Public Policy programs, and most of them were undergraduate majors in Political Science or Economics, so they’ve got some exposure to it. But, I can probably say that in all the time that I’ve been back, there hasn’t been a semester where I felt I didn’t learn something just from the interactions with students in class. And if you stay open to that, it really keeps you young. The perspective of somebody who’s been at this for 50 years tends to get a little ossified, a little bit set in stone. And when somebody looks at you and says, ‘Well, why is it that way,’ you begin to think, ‘Well, I’m not 100% sure why it’s that way, maybe we ought to find out.’ In the field that I study, new ideas are not only hard to come by. They’re precious when they do so. So I enjoy that. I enjoy the classroom a lot. I enjoy the one-on-one with students. I require both group and individual research papers. And working with small groups of students who have to agree on a topic approach and the division of labor, that’s fine. But also, working with students on individual topics, taking something that they have a passion for and helping them work their way through the process by which an idea of that sort is transformed into an operating program. It’s just a wonderful way to spend your life. 

Q: The SPA Building was named after you in 2017. What was your reaction? 

A: I was stunned when it occurred. I mean, you can imagine what it meant to me. Then I realized how weird it was gonna be. When I tell a student, ‘You gotta meet in Kerwin Hall,’ I realized that if they haven’t been around here for a long time, they may not put two and two together; This Kerwin is that Kerwin. The board, when I left the presidency, decided that this is how they would honor me and I couldn’t imagine anything that would have meant more to me than that. As I said, having been among the first group of students that used the building when it was first constructed and now returning it to it as my professional home. And I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure when I go into a graduate class that the students put two together, either. I mean, they may, or somebody may tell them. But it was an honor beyond anything I could have expected. 

Q: Does it change your relationship with the building at all? 

A: I gotta tell you, it’s an odd kind of feeling walking into a building that’s got your name on the front of it. And, yeah, that’s your name. What goes on in here is enormously important. As I said, to think that my name is going to be attached to this for as long as there’s a Ward Circle, as long as there’s a building doing the School of Public Affairs’ work; It’s something I couldn’t have even dreamed of when I was a kid. So you know, it’s profound to me. 

Q: What advice do you want to give students and professors? 

A: I think that the advice is, for the undergraduates that are here, treasure these years. Get the most out of them that you possibly can. Every faculty member on this campus is accessible. If you go your distance, it’s been my experience, they’ll reciprocate. The city, many of you will stay. I mean, that’s the one thing we learned too, is that students come from all over the country and all over the world, but a lot of them don’t leave. They stay here, and they build lives and they build careers here. It’s the greatest laboratory for whatever you’re studying that I’m aware of anywhere. I mean, there may be a bit more business in New York and there might be a bit more technology in Palo Alto, but there’s nothing you study on this campus that you can’t be doing a half an hour later and you really want to take advantage of that. You’re blessed in so many ways when you’ve had the kind of career I’ve had. My faculty colleagues are people that I treasure, and they’re the ones who teach me. I mean, they’re involved in stuff and in studying things that are just literally endlessly fascinating. To me, it’s just keeping up the good work because that work is vitally important.

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Caleb Ogilvie
Caleb Ogilvie, Staff Editor
Caleb Ogilvie (he/him) is a sophomore studying journalism. Ogilvie writes to explore people's ideals, goals, beliefs, values, and frustrations. He enjoys showcasing the best aspects of everyone and everything, learning the stories behind everyone and everything, and understanding the world more holistically through journalism.