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AU Then & Now

Faculty Who've Been at AU for Decades Reflect on its Biggest Changes

By Adena Maier | 4/29/17 11:41am | Updated 4/29/17 11:41am

"AU’s administration has decided that AU’s population has to reflect America and also the world," said Dr. Fanta Aw.

Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

AU has undergone significant changes in its nearly 125-year history, including campus expansions and the addition of new departments and programs, but – most importantly – a changing student body. AU professors and faculty members who have been here for decades reflect on the changes they’ve witnessed, such as demographics and shifting student priorities, as well as their own hopes for the future. 

Professor Caleen Jennings

More Diversity, But There's Still Work to Do

Theatre Professor Caleen Sinette Jennings has been teaching at AU since 1989 and remembered having maybe two or three black students at most in the first four years of teaching at AU, despite teaching huge general education classes.

“I know that my colleagues and students get impatient and want AU to be more diverse,” Jennings said, “but from my perspective it is jaw-dropping to walk the campus and see so many races and ethnicities.”

As AU becomes more diverse, the university needs to figure out what that really means. Jennings is chair of the President’s Council of Diversity and Inclusion, and she feels that now is the time to have tough conversations and make the most out of our diversity. 

“I could give you a bunch of tulips and a bunch of roses and a bunch of sunflowers but until I make a bouquet, there is no harmony there,” said Jennings. “We’re not enjoying the benefit of the flowers.” 

AU should be proud about the growing diversity, Jennings said, noting that the administration and even her colleagues used to be very conservative. “I’ve had white colleagues say to me, ‘I’m all about diversity but I don’t want to lower standards,’” said Jennings. “I give a lot of credit to the administrators of the late 90s, early 2000s who embraced making our community diverse.” 

In the next few years, Jennings' main hope is to see deepening trust between students and faculty members. “I’m hoping to see us bridge the divides that have sprung up and to find a way to have those tough conversations and make the most of our diversity,” Jennings said. “We need to get people not just talking to one another but also experiencing one another.” 

Dr. Anthony Riley 

Stayed for the Students, But Waiting for a Science Building

When Professor Anthony Riley first arrived at American University in 1976, he planned to stay for a maximum of three years. Three years turned into 40, and Riley has never applied for a position elsewhere. Riley said that his students are what have kept him here. He characterized AU students as always having been very bright, smart, engaged and active. “I think the students here are equally as good as students in any place,” Riley said. 

However, Riley feels that while the science programs at AU are robust, most students know very little about them. “We are a research university. We have 20 some labs in our department that students don’t even know we have, and we’ve got very productive scientists here,” said Riley. “But you don’t know that, it’s not publicized.” 

Perhaps part of the reason these programs are relatively obscure on campus is because there isn’t a building designated for the life sciences. Although a new life sciences building is slated for construction for around 2020, this is a project for which those in the science departments have been waiting for over two decades. Riley said that when he was first applying to work at AU, he was told by the then chair that this building would be built in the next year or two; it is only now finally coming to fruition. 

“Students in SIS attach themselves to SIS, and students in SPA attach themselves to SPA. But students in CAS don’t do that; they attach to the department,” said Riley. “You don’t have the same type of visibility in the sciences, but that’s changing.” 

Dr. Fanta Aw

Dedicated to International Students and Intersectionality 

Dr. Fanta Aw, originally from Mali, joined AU’s faculty 25 years ago, but before that she was an international student at AU. Aw, who was recently named the interim Vice President of Campus Life, has mostly worked in the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office. 

“[Working for the ISSS] was a way for me to give back to a place that I felt had given me a lot,” said Aw. “I had the great fortune of then being able to be part of an exciting team to reimagine what kind of services we want to create for international students.” 

Apart from working in the ISSS, Aw has also worked closely with the Center for Diversity & Inclusion (CDI). Before the CDI, there was the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the LGBT Center, and the Women’s Resource Center, and Aw was integral in bringing those offices together under one umbrella. 

“Students were literally going through three doors, and those doors were in many ways symbolic of how we tend to conceptualize identity,” said Aw. “That got us really thinking that we need to bring those different parts together and recognize that what we’re really talking about is intersectionality.” 

During her time as a student, Aw remembered AU as being a very diverse place in terms of race and ethnicity, but said it lacked socioeconomic diversity. 

“To me, diversifying in terms of socioeconomic background is a moral obligation of a university,” said Aw. “Universities should aim to be equitable as much as they can, and because education is that great equalizer, we need to make sure students who have the talents are afforded these opportunities.”

Aw said AU has been going through a period where diversity on campus is disappearing, but that AU’s current financial aid model is contributing to a recent surge in diversity. 

“AU’s administration has decided that AU’s population has to reflect America and also the world,” Aw said. “We owe that to our students, for how that impacts their learning and what they’re able to be exposed to.”

Professor Colman McCarthy 

Activism and Anxiety on Campus 

Professor Colman McCarthy began teaching classes about peace at AU in 1982, but was fired in 1986 because his grading policies were viewed as too lenient. His students protested,closed down the Ward building and occupied the president’s house on campus. McCarthy hired a lawyer and sued the university for defamation. Eventually, the university apologized and McCarthy was rehired.

McCarthy also teaches at Georgetown, Georgetown Law School, the University of Maryland, and Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, and in his eyes what distinguishes AU students from other students is their commitment to social justice. McCarthy remembered AU as an anti-war campus with students frequently occupying Ward Circle with signs and anti-war protests. 

“Today’s protests are different – obviously they aren’t anti-war because there’s no draft now, but back then there was and if you went to college, you were deferred until you graduated,” said McCarthy. “To its credit, AU has long ranked high in campus political activism.”

One of the major changes at AU over the years that has concerned McCarthy is the level of stress and anxiety he has witnessed among his students. 

“In my SIS classes 30 years ago, the anxiety levels of the students were low or non-existent. Today they’re high – why? Lots of reasons,” McCarthy said. “The fear of graduating deeply in debt. The fear of not finding meaningful work. The fear of Trump and his policies. The fear of global warming. Taken together, that’s a weighty load of anxiety to be hauling around.”

McCarthy said that no one has since brought up his grading policies, but he does make an effort to make sure his students understand that getting A’s isn’t everything.

“Making A’s doesn’t make you a kinder or more generous person, and you can make all A’s in school and go on to fail at life,” said McCarthy. “I worry about students who make too many A’s; you have to wonder what they’re missing out on.”