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Who Investigates a President?

May 8, 2006

On Friday, the trustees of Wesley College issued a unanimous statement backing Scott D. Miller, who for the second time while serving as president of the Delaware institution is facing serious charges of plagiarism (which he denies).

Board members said that there was "no merit" in the latest accusations -- which involve striking similarities between a statement of philosophy Miller put on Wesley's Web site and one written by the president of Samford University. In 2000, Miller faced accusations over a speech that had numerous similarities with a talk by the former president of Connecticut College.

In issuing its statement only days after the new allegations surfaced, Wesley's board did one of the things that many experts say a board should do when a president faces serious charges: Act quickly. But other parts of the Wesley board's response run counter to much of the advice that experts would offer. Many experts say colleges find themselves in awkward situations when certain kinds of charges are leveled against a president -- and that those accusations (even if not true) have the potential to seriously damage an institution.

If there's not a handbook for how colleges should handle allegations of serious wrongdoing against a president, that's because the assumption has been that boards would be evaluating presidents based on such matters as financial management, key hires, educational leadership and so forth. When presidencies implode, they tend to concern a breakdown of relationships with key campus groups ( Harvard University) or financial problems along with a breakdown of relations ( Case Western Reserve University).

To be sure, many campus critics think that boards were too slow to act in those cases. But -- at least in theory -- the kinds of people who end up on boards have the skills to evaluate a college's finances and a president's management skill. After all, trustees tend to be senior executives themselves, with extensive experience with balance sheets and in board rooms. But what about presidential wrongdoing? Do they need to know how to evaluate claims and counterclaims that have nothing to do with budgets?

"No board wants to have to conduct an investigation of a president on any basis," said Susan W. Johnston, executive vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. "And I think for many boards we are in new territory in how to investigate moral issues of plagiarism or sexual impropriety."

Events of recent months suggest trustees do need that skill:

  • John Neal quit suddenly as president of Maryville University last month, after less than a year in office, just before news articles surfaced that St. Louis police were investigating reports of a sexual assault that took place at his home. Prosecutors later told local reporters that he would not face rape charges. While law enforcement officials indicated that there was an “occurrence” between Neal and a 23-year-old woman who said he raped her, they indicated that there was no evidence of crime. The Associated Press reported that police used the woman’s computer to send and receive e-mail from Neal, who indicated that he had made a mistake in his relations with the woman, but did not rape her.
  • Charles Carlsen, who took a sudden leave of absence from the presidency of Johnson County Community College last month, retired amid reports that he had been accused of sexually harassing an employee in 2003. While he denied the charges, he said that the accusations were a distraction for the college.
  • Truckee Meadows Community College last month agreed to pay $10,000 to resolve a sexual harassment suit by a former employee who charges that her job deteriorated after she rebuffed a request from President Philip Ringle that she join him in a hot tub. While Ringle and the college deny that anything inappropriate happened, they said that they settled to avoid a long legal fight.

Financial matters these days also can go beyond a college's budget to allegations of impropriety. Texas Southern University is currently trying to fire its president, Priscilla Slade, who is widely praised for her management of the university, over issues of spending on her home. Slade denies wrongdoing and is fighting for her job, but reports continue to surface of her apparent willingness to spend on herself: A recent article in The Houston Chronicle was based on a day of an appropriations hearing that resulted in nearly every public college president in Texas coming to Austin. While many stayed at Hampton Inn, a Marriott or a Red Roof Inn, Slade was at the Four Seasons.

And the reports of the private chef, European trips, and parties for his son did in Benjamin Ladner as president of American University last year. Ladner's departure -- and charges that the board there was ignoring obvious problems -- have led to scrutiny by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in advising colleges on their contracts with their presidents, said that the American University scandal -- and the board's response -- both offered models and things to avoid at all costs. On the positive said, he said, the board went out and hired a law firm (not Cotton's) to examine Ladner's expenses, and that firm in turn used forensic accountants. It was smart of the board to seek expert help, as opposed to assuming it could figure out everything itself, Cotton said.

And a special added bonus: Much of the investigation should be covered by attorney-client privilege, he said.

But American also demonstrates one of the worst possible qualities for a board trying to figure out if a president has done something wrong: division. The AU board was clearly split -- and Cotton said that while it's natural for board members to come to different conclusions, it is very hard for a board to handle an investigation if trustees are divided into groups, as the president's camp and the president's critics.

Cotton said that one lesson from all of these scandals is the need to have clear language in contracts about what happens when a scandal breaks. Contracts typically cover dismissal for cause (felony convictions, for example) and dismissal without cause (the board just wants someone else). Golden parachutes are typically much more gilded in the latter case. Many boards could justify a dismissal for cause (and pay less in severance) if they conducted an investigation, Cotton said. But they fear lawsuits or the passage of time so they opt to pay more and not imply that the president did anything wrong.

Having a plan in place, so boards can act quickly, is essential. He said that his fellow lawyers who advise trustees all want to think about all the possible scenarios, but that is sometimes hard for board members excited about the president they are about to hire -- with very high hopes.

Johnston, of AGB, said that the very quality boards and presidents need -- trust -- can make it hard to confront these issues. "Generally it's important for the board to support the president and yet at the same time to not cover up any problems," she said.

On issues related to an institution's financial management, it is much easier for boards to be "proactive," she said, setting up an audit committee and improving their functioning. And if a board has done a good job in that area, it can be confident when questions are raised about finances. "It's much more difficult when this relates to integrity," she said.

One question trustees need to ask, she said, is if a criticism of the president has turned into a threat to the institution. "The bottom line is that the board is responsible for the institution," she said, not for the president.

And that's why some experts said that the way for boards to deal with such investigations is to be a little heartless. Robert H. Atwell, a former president of the American Council on Education, said that that needs to start with the search, where boards should spend more time looking into possible patterns with candidates. He said that "too often" boards end up investigating the same problem that was apparent in a previous job.

If an investigation is needed once a president is in office, Atwell said, "it can't drag on," and it must been seen as complete and open. The idea that colleges can deal with a problem by settling a lawsuit is "just a horrible answer," he said. Of the board that paid $10,000 to settle a suit, even if the trustees thought the charges were groundless, it was "dumb, dumb, dumb," he said. "What were they thinking?"

When colleges are investigating, Atwell said, they can't just look at whether the charges are true, but whether the charges will stick to a president and an institution. "It's a Caesar's wife thing," he said. "You need to be above reproach."

And boards need to remember that once charges are in the public sphere and not immediately refuted, the question of innocence and guilt may be irrelevant. "Once this stuff is out there, if it doesn't go away very quickly, it's hard for a president to survive and be effective," Atwell said. "Once the perception is out there, the perception will trump reality and taint the institution."

 

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