Mike Scher remembers his first drive to American University’s scenic getaway from the hustle and bustle of DC.
Just two weeks into his tenure as assistant vice president of campus auxiliary services, Scher, SOC/BA ’08, WCL/JD ’13, Kogod/MS ’19, was struck by serenity of Airlie, AU’s 300-acre property in Warrenton, Virginia, which includes a working farm, hotel, events space, and conference center less than an hour’s drive from Washington.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this belongs to AU,’” Scher says. “There’s a feeling that history happened here and will continue to happen because this is a place where you can be at ease and share your ideas.”
The Airlie Foundation gave the pastoral property, valued at $18.8 million, to AU in 2016, making it one of the earliest gifts to Change Can’t Wait: The Campaign for American University. As AU enters its sixth year of stewardship, university leaders, including Scher and CFO Bronté Burleigh-Jones, Kogod/BSBA ’91, MBA ’93, have outlined an 18-month vision for Airlie, which lays the foundation for growth and sustainability into the future.
“We have a unique asset with Airlie that most universities don’t have,” says Burleigh-Jones, who came to AU in 2021 from Dickinson College, which also manages a farm. “This plan, once fully implemented, has the potential to further integrate AU and Airlie and ensure long-term sustainability.”
Cows graze on Airlie's farm amongst the morning fog.
Throughout its history, Airlie—once dubbed an “island of thought” by Life magazine—has offered an oasis for sharing ideas and solving problems. The property hosted the inaugural NAACP leadership conference in 1962, and Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders set up camp there to plan Civil Rights marches.
In 1969 Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, planted the seed at the property for Earth Day, which was celebrated for the first time the following year. Countless cabinet secretaries, heads of state, and business leaders have also held court at Airlie over the years, including Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who held a recent meeting at the property.
Airlie remains a popular wedding venue and corporate and political retreat for those seeking a more isolated and scenic venue. However, AU’s roadmap—rooted in the Changemakers for a Changing World strategic plan—aims to strengthen the university’s relationship with Airlie as an idyllic space for scholarship, learning, and community building. The plan calls for hosting educational conferences, immersive and experiential learning programs, faculty research opportunities, student internships, and even classes at the property, says Wendy Boland, dean of graduate and professional studies.
“Airlie has this really rich environment,” she says. “There’s a reimagination of what’s possible there.”
The plan also calls for upgrading and constructing facilities, developing a climate action plan, expanding farm-to-table offerings, and getting more varieties of produce into the hands of more people, including those experiencing food insecurity.
Former AU president and chair of the Airlie board of directors, Neil Kerwin, SPA/BA ’71, Burleigh-Jones, and Scher, presented the plan to the AU Board of Trustees during a September meeting at the property. The retreat included dinner at dusk under a brand-new pavilion.
AU's Board of Trustees held a recent meeting under Airlie's new pavilion.
About 20,000 pounds of produce are grown each year on the property’s 20-acre farm, much of which is used by Airlie for its hyperlocal cuisine and in AU’s dining facilities. Any surplus is donated to local food banks. Airlie also boasts an organic garden, with 20 plots reserved for Warrenton community members.
Airlie, which will host a cooking competition on campus this fall, also offers produce, meat, and honey for sale during AU’s weekly fall farmer’s market, held Wednesdays on the Friedheim Quad. The event is just a taste of good things to come from AU’s home in the country.