When Benjamin A. Ladner first took the reins of American University
(A.U.) in 1994, the Washington, D.C.-based private school was awash in
turmoil and tainted by controversy. Board members did not expect Ladner
to add to the scandal.
The university was in the process of ameliorating its
reputation as a second-rate party school when the president resigned,
in 1990, after officials traced obscene phone calls to his office. The
situation deteriorated as his successors quickly came and went without
leaving much of a mark.
In April 1994, the governing Board of Trustees turned to
Ladner—a former ethics professor and head of the nonprofit National
Faculty of the Humanities, Arts, and Sciences—to bring stability to the
top leadership position.
“I came to stay,” Ladner said during his inaugural address in November 1994, according to The Washington Post. “I’m not going.”
However, Ladner did leave, although involuntarily, when he was ousted from the presidency by the university’s board on Oct. 10.
A several-months-long investigation authorized by the trustees
found expenditures deemed questionable—including French wine and
dinners at upscale restaurants—that Ladner had charged to A.U. The
board is currently seeking $125,000 in reimbursement from Ladner, and
it plans to report an additional $398,000 in income to the Internal
The allegations of the president’s lavish spending on the
university’s tab prompted open dissent from students and faculty. The
former held rallies demanding Ladner’s resignation, and the A.U.
student government supported removal without a severance package.
On Sept. 26, the faculties of five of the six schools at A.U.
voted “no confidence” in the president. The symbolic move was inspired
by the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ expression of
no-confidence in University President Lawrence H. Summers in March,
according to A.U. Associate Professor of International Economic Policy
and Comparative Political Economy Stephen J. Silvia.
Ladner, who had been suspended by the board in August,
maintained throughout the investigation that his actions were within
the bounds of the employment contract he had negotiated with the
trustees. He maintains a faction of supporters who emphasize the
improvements to the university that occurred under his
stewardship—including an increase in the endowment and higher academic
Questions now center on the kind of severance package, if any,
Ladner will receive from the board. And as the focus shifts from what
Ladner did to what the trustees will do, the board as an institution
has come under increasing criticism. Students and faculty have renewed
calls for representation and transparency in board proceedings.
The probe into Ladner’s spending habits began when the
Board of Trustees received an anonymous letter that accused Ladner and
his wife, Nancy Bullard Ladner, of inappropriately billing the
university for personal services and travel expenses. A similar letter
sent to The Washington Post in late July provided examples of the
alleged misuse of the university’s funds. According to the letter
received by the Post, the Ladners charged the cost of their son’s
engagement party, the services of a personal chef, vacations in Europe,
and other various goods and services to the university.
The A.U. board hired a number of outside auditors and lawyers
to look into Ladner’s expenses. On Aug. 24, the then-chairperson of the
board, Leslie E. Bains, announced that Ladner had been placed on paid
administrative leave pending the completion of the audit. Provost
Cornelius Kerwin was installed as the interim president.
One month later, in an interview with the Post, Ladner
admitted that he had made some mistakes. He also gave the university
$21,000 as reimbursement for limousine rides and other services.
“Did I use some bad judgment? Sure. I’m the first one to say
I’ve made mistakes,” Ladner said to the Post. He also hinted that he
might take legal action if the board dismissed him.
RILING A REACTION
The defensive and even threatening stance that Ladner adopted caught some students and faculty members off-guard.
“Rather than refute the charges, the President has given
credibility to them by insisting that he was legally entitled to a
‘first class level of living,’” writes Associate Professor of
International Relations Randolph B. Persaud in an e-mail.
However, the students contacted for this article said that
the allegations of overspending did not come as a shock. The
president’s expenditures were criticized as early as 1995.
“I think the allegations were sort of long in coming,” says
Kyle G. Taylor, a senior and president of the A.U. Student Government.
“To the students, the allegations didn’t seem as a surprise, though
they were still disconcerting.”
“We, the students, had always had concerns about his
compensation, and his interaction with the University,” writes Peter W.
Brusoe, a graduate student and member of the A.U. Graduate Leadership
Council, in an e-mail.
He adds, “However, I do feel that some of the allegations
have been exaggerated to vilify the President and that some of the
excess he has been charged with will turn out to be unfounded.”
The Graduate Leadership Council nonetheless called for Ladner
to resign early in the situation, Brusoe writes, and graduate students
participated in campus protests and discussions with the board.
The undergraduate Student Government waited a month until it too urged Ladner’s removal, says Taylor.
“Slowly but surely it became clear [Ladner] did something very wrong,” he says.
But, while students and faculty condemned Ladner’s spending,
some also acknowledged the strides that the university made during his
11-year tenure. For instance, figures cited by the Washington Post
indicate that the university’s endowment increased from $29 million in
1994 to the current total of $262 million. The average SAT scores of
entering freshmen have jumped from 1133 to 1285, and the average grade
point average has risen from 3.2 to 3.5, according to The Post.
“Ben Ladner in many ways is the Richard Nixon of A.U. He has
done a few great things, but in the end his tenure will be marred with
scandal,” Brusoe writes.
Other members of the A.U. community were reluctant to credit Ladner for the university’s improvements.
“The growth of the endowment was partly due to the movement of
great amounts of tuition money being moved into savings, not just
donations,” Shane Mayer, who graduated from A.U. in 2005 and is now
pursuing graduate studies there, writes in an e-mail.
Garrett B. Nagle, who received both his undergraduate and
graduate degrees at A.U., says that many of the academic improvements
had already begun under former President Richard E. Berendzen.
Despite the calls for his resignation, Ladner repeatedly
expressed his desire to return to the university. But the board did not
give him the chance.
“The Board of Trustees of American University decided today
that President Benjamin Ladner will not return to American University
as its president,” Board Vice Chair Thomas A. Gottschalk wrote in a
statement released the night of Oct. 10.
The statement also said that the board adopted the findings of
the Audit Committee and would both seek the reimbursement from Ladner
and report the additional income to the IRS. According to the
statement, the board also formed three committees to look into reforms
for the board, begin searching for a new president, and consider
replacements for the former Board Chairperson Bains.
Bains suddenly stepped down on Oct. 9, writing in her
resignation letter that “a very small, but mean-spirited group” had
tried to stymie the investigation and reinstate Ladner.
A second board member, Paul M. Wolff, resigned on Oct. 12
because he did not support the idea of giving Ladner any severance,
according to the resignation statement that he sent to the other
trustees that was obtained by the Post.
“What is astounding is that despite all that has been made
public, some [board] members want to find ways of ‘making it up’ to
Ladner,” Persaud writes.
REFORM THE BOARD
The ongoing debate over a severance package has trained growing scrutiny on the Board of Trustees itself.
A.U. community members say that the board was too hands-off in its approach to Ladner, giving him too much power.
Both students and faculty say that they need to be represented
on the board, and that the board cannot continue to conduct all its
meetings in secret.
“We have a hermetically sealed Board,” writes Silvia in an
e-mail. “The Board names its own successors. The alumni have no vote.
There are no faculty or student representatives on the Board. This
absence of accountability and the failure to serve the University well
have undercut the credibility of the Board among students and faculty.”
Taylor says that transparency in the proceedings is important.
Currently, the board often meets in “executive sessions,” which means
the proceedings are secret, he says.
“So you can’t find out what happened, it’s all sealed,
confidential, private,” Taylor says. “That’s very outdated. That’s what
we’re looking to change.”
—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at email@example.com.