The U.S. has endured a record-breaking heat wave this summer, and with it, a cluster of turnovers in higher education’s top position.
The momentum of late July’s multiple president resignations across some of the nation’s most well-known institutions seems to have continued into August. However, the motivation behind these presidents’ break from university leadership is markedly cooler than last month’s more dramatic falls from grace. Two presidential exits, for example, stem from a desire to spend more time with family.
Presidents stepping down
Sylvia M. Burwell – American University (D.C.)
American University’s Sylvia M. Burwell is calling it a job well done after six years of service as president; the 2023-24 academic year will be her last. After spending most of her professional life in the orbit of two United States presidents and leading AU through the pandemic, Burwell is looking forward to more family time.
“For our children’s entire life, my work has been 24/7,” Burwell said. “So they have no concept of anything other than weekends and nights being the way we lead our lives. … We want a change in lifestyle for at least some time. So they can experience something different and we can experience something different,” said Burwell, according to the Washington Post.
Upon assuming American’s highest administrative position, Burwell boasted an ironclad resume despite not serving once in the higher education space. She served as White House deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and the secretary of health and human services under Barack Obama’s administration. The latter referred to Burwell as a “proven manager” who “knows how to deliver results,” according to USA Today.
As the first female to lead American, Burwell helped raise its endowment to $988 million, a $341 million gain since assuming office. In STEM, she’s doubled the university’s external funding for research and oversaw the completion of its Hall of Science.
Dr. Lonnie A. Burnett – University of Mobile (Ala.)
Dr. Lonnie A. Burnett may loom as one of the most prominent figures in the University of Mobile’s 62-year history. An alumnus of the Christian university, Burnett has spent the last 20 years working in various positions, such as its dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and has spent the past five as president. The 2023-24 academic year will be his last.
Burnett has been primarily focused on improving the quality of Mobile’s academic programs. In his last year, he will launch a long-term campaign focused on mentorship, quality academics and a vision of “Higher Education for a Higher Purpose,” according to a university statement. As a Christian university, its academic scope coalesces with Burnett’s object of improving students’ spiritual growth.
“Dr. Burnett has brought vision and clarity to the mission of the University of Mobile while adding strength and stability up and down the organization. I know I speak for the entire board when I say the university has been served extremely well by his time as our president,” Board of Trustees Chairman Terry Harbin said.
E. Gordon Gee – West Virginia University
As for the grand scope of U.S. higher education, Gordon Gee’s plan to retire as president of West Virginia University in June 2025 cannot be omitted. For the past four decades, Gee has led the University of Colorado, The Ohio State University (twice), Brown University, Vanderbilt University and most recently West Virginia’s flagship university (also twice, the first taking place from 1981-1985).
At 79, many would dot the period to seal a significant career—but Gee won’t. “My plans beyond June of 2025 are to return to the WVU College of Law and start teaching again,” Gee said, according to Metro News. “So, those are my plans, and I have no plans beyond that.”
Most recently, Gee was tasked with leading the complex consolidation of WVU’s academic programs. Declining student enrollment, increased competition and lackluster long-term state funding have motivated this transition, placing the university’s administrators and employees at odds. Despite the tension, the department plans to continue department restructures.
Jennifer Bonds-Raacke – Saint Martin’s University (Wash.)
Jennifer Bonds-Raacke, Saint Martin’s University’s first female president, resigned from the Catholic Benedictine university on Aug. 7 following her father’s death. Beginning her tenure in July 2022, Bonds-Raacke served one year as president.
“Although I have worked diligently to keep up with the demands of the role during this spring and summer, I have decided that I need additional time to process this loss,” Bonds-Raacke wrote in an open letter.
Father Kilian Malvey has been appointed acting president until an interim is announced.
Dr. Mark Ginsberg – Towson University (Md.)
Towson University has found its 15th president in Dr. Mark Ginsberg, current provost and executive vice president of George Mason University in Virginia.
At George Mason, he worked on boosting the institution’s profile by “reimagining” undergraduate programs, expanding first-generation student initiatives and investing in its core pillars of academia, research and administration, according to a Towson University statement. In 2017, George Mason achieved R1 Carnegie classification under Ginsberg’s tenure.
Aside from Dr. Ginsberg’s current academic administrative experience and 20 years of faculty work at Johns Hopkins University, he also has extensive leadership experience in the nonprofit sector. Specifically, his work has focused on student, educator and family member well-being; he has served as a senior leader or executive at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the American Psychological Association, according to CBS News.