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Sylvia Mathews Burwell


Sylvia Mary Mathews Burwell, born August 23, 1965, in Hinton, was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2014. She previously served in the Bill Clinton administration and held several prominent positions in the nonprofit sector.

Born to Bill and Cleo Mathews, Sylvia and her sister Stephanie grew up in Hinton. Sylvia attended Hinton High School, where she was student body president and valedictorian of her graduating class in 1983. She attended Harvard University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in government in 1987. During this time, she also worked as an intern for Congressman Nick Rahall and as an aide to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, later assisting on Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign. She then attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, completing a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics in 1990. She worked for a consulting firm in New York until the 1992 presidential election, when she joined Bill Clinton’s campaign team.

Following Clinton’s victory, Burwell was named manager of his economic transition team. In January 1993, she accepted the position of staff director for the National Economic Council. When NEC director Robert Rubin was named Treasury Secretary in 1995, Burwell became his chief of staff. She remained in that position until being appointed as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff in 1997. The following year, she was given the role of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, which she held until the end of Clinton’s second term in 2001.

After President Clinton left office, Burwell was hired as chief operating officer and executive director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She was appointed to the board of directors of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 2004. In 2006, the Gates Foundation made Burwell its head of global development. She left the Gates Foundation in 2011 to become president of the Walmart Foundation.

In 2013, Burwell returned to the OMB when Barack Obama nominated her as director. She was confirmed unanimously, presiding over the department during the 2013 federal government shutdown. In this role, she was part of the president’s executive office and helped analyze and create the country’s budget. On June 9, 2014, she resigned from the OMB to take the role of Secretary of Health and Human Services. She was responsible for the administration of health services, including the Food and Drug Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, as well as other organizations and social welfare programs. In December 2016 the Charleston Gazette-Mail named her West Virginian of the Year. She resigned in January 2017 at the end of President Obama’s second term in office.

In addition to her government and philanthropic appointments, Burwell has served with various organizations, including the Aspen Strategy Group, the Trilateral Commission, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Since June 1, 2017, Burwell has served as the 15th president, and the first woman president, of American University in Washington, DC.

In 2007, Sylvia Mathews married Stephen Burwell, with whom she has two children. She maintains her ties to West Virginia by visiting the state regularly, ensuring her children spend time in the state, and speaking at West Virginia University, where a scholarship has been named in her honor.

Written by Kevin Hogg