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Sylvia Burwell ’87 Pledges to Promote ‘Inclusive Excellence’ on the Harvard Board of Overseers

American University President Sylvia M. Burwell ’87 said she would promote “inclusive excellence” at Harvard if elected to its Board of Overseers.
American University President Sylvia M. Burwell ’87 said she would promote “inclusive excellence” at Harvard if elected to its Board of Overseers. By Courtesy of Jeff Watts
By Miles J. Herszenhorn, Crimson Staff Writer

Since becoming the president of American University in 2017, Sylvia M. Burwell ’87 has acquired nearly six years of experience working with a university’s governing board. Now, she wants to join one for the next six years.

Burwell said she is running for election to Harvard’s Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body — because she wants to serve “a place that’s really important and doing really important work.”

“It is a special thing in terms of what it means to me personally and why I want to, if given the opportunity, to be able to give back,” she added.

Burwell said that promoting diversity and inclusion would be one of her priorities if elected to the Board of Overseers. She has advocated for “inclusive excellence” at American University, where she said 57 percent of her senior leadership are people of color.

“You can’t be excellent as an institution of higher learning without actually having inclusion,” she said.

Despite Burwell’s focus on diversity and inclusion in her bid for a seat on the Board of Overseers, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard did not endorse her. The Coalition, an alumni advocacy group, is a strong supporter of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

In addition to her experience in higher education, Burwell boasts a lengthy career in politics. She held two cabinet positions in President Barack Obama’s administration, serving as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2014 to 2017 during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

Burwell would be the second Obama administration secretary to sit on the Board of Overseers if elected, joining former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. ’96. Two members of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 and former Small Business Administrator Karen Gordon Mills ’75 — were also both members of Obama’s cabinet.

Burwell said that she is “very excited” about Harvard University President-elect Claudine Gay, adding that she hopes to provide Gay with a helpful perspective as a university president.

“Having someone who sits in their seat and can see and understand from their perspective on a daily basis is something that I hope would be valuable,” Burwell said.

On the Board of Overseers, Burwell is excited to tap into the “generative part” of the Overseer role and shape higher education over the coming decade.

In particular, Burwell said she hopes to increase trust in higher education by listening to critics on the political left and right.

“One of the things that I think we all need to do in higher education is recognize the legitimacy of some of the concerns, versus saying, ‘We’re being attacked,’” Burwell said.

“I actually believe that some criticisms of higher education are legitimate,” she added. “So therefore, what I would want to encourage Harvard to do is to think through what are the legitimate concerns that are being expressed and what are we doing about them.”

Correction: March 31, 2023

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sylvia M. Burwell ’87 was the former president of American University. In fact, she is the current president.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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