Ousted at American U.

Trustees fire Benjamin Ladner as president amid inquiries into questionable spending, but leave key issues unresolved.
October 11, 2005

Charges of profligate spending culminated in a pink slip Monday for Benjamin Ladner, the president of American University.

“The fundamental conclusion of the board,” Thomas A. Gottschalk, the chair of American’s Board of Trustees, said after more than eight hours of closed discussions, “was that [Ladner] could not continue to lead the university effectively.” His words were met with claps and hoots from a handful of students and faculty members who had waited out the board’s marathon meeting. 

Ladner was suspended in August during an investigation into expenditures he charged to the university, including a personal chef, vacations in Europe, and an engagement party for his son.Ladner has acknowledged making some minor financial mistakes but has insisted that most of the charges against him are "baseless."

The board also decided yesterday to ask Ladner to reimburse the university for $125,000 worth of “personal expenses” from 2002-05, Gottschalk said, and authorized the university’s audit committee to disclose $398,000 in previously unreported taxable income over the same period, which may be used in an investigation that the U.S. Department of Justice has begun.

Neil Kerwin, the former provost, who told those assembled after the board meeting broke up that “it’s time to move on with renewed commitment,” will continue as acting president until a search is completed. The board hopes to have the search under way by November, and implied that some candidates already on campus would be considered.

Kerwin is not the only person new to his position. Gottschalk became acting chair of what had become a bitterly divided board on Monday after Leslie E. Bains, the former chair, resigned Sunday. Her resignation letter said that “the pro-Ladner forces this weekend called for my resignation. It is yet another attempt to distract the board.” 

Gottschalk said the board did not discuss particulars about Ladner’s controversial severance package, but will in coming months. If Ladner is terminated “without cause,” under his 1997 contract, he could walk away with a package worth over $1 million, including a tenured professorship with salary always 20 percent higher than the salary of the next highest paid faculty member. 

Kerwin praised the trustees for listening to student and faculty member representatives over the course of the day. “Our values are intact,” he said. “Campus voices are heard on matters of significance.” 

To make sure more voices continue to be heard, Gottschalk said that the board also decided Monday to create three new committees: one to meet with “university constituencies and recommend an inclusive” presidential search; a second to consider candidates for board chair; and a third to “examine and recommend improvements in the board’s governance process.” 

Around 10 a.m., a few dozen students and faculty members rallied for Ladner’s firing on a campus quieted by fall break. By about 9 p.m., after the decision was announced, only a few of those, their “It’s over Ben” signs on the floor, remained. 

The students, some of whom were wearing T-shirts with Ladner’s face next to a dictionary definition of “greed,” were glad that he is gone, but disappointed that no decision was made about the severance package, which they strongly oppose. “He should leave with nothing. He still owes the university,” said Kyle Taylor, president of the student government who got the chance to share those feelings with the board during its meeting. 

Earlier in the day, while Taylor was behind the boardroom’s closed doors, two students showed up for a counter protest. Brandy Wells, a senior, had an “I ♥ Ladner” poster. “I think he did a wonderful job,” she said, “even if a few things shouldn’t have happened. We weren’t even in the top 100 [U.S. News and World Report ranked colleges] before Ladner.” 

Miguel Carter, an assistant professor in the School of International Service, disagreed. He was one of the faculty members who voted “no confidence” in Ladner last month, a vote that passed at five of the university’s six schools, with the sixth short of a quorum. “His contribution is overrated,” said Carter, who said that Ladner increased the endowment, but did much of it by taking from other budgets, as opposed to through fund raising.

Lynne Arneson, an assistant professor of biology, said she thought the no confidence vote meant that faculty members could be demoralized if Ladner is allowed to stay on campus as the highest paid professor. “I just don’t think he can stay,” she said. Richard Berendzen, president of American before Ladner, is a physics professor on campus. He resigned in 1990 after making obscene phone calls from his office, and checking himself into a sexual disorders clinic. 

Anthony Ahrens, a psychology professor and head of the Faculty Senate, said he thought the board was “right on target,” and that “it’s time to move forward.” 

Veronica Onorevole, a graduate student in American’s School of International Service, said she was glad Ladner is gone, but disappointed that “they were very ambiguous about the terms of severance.” Onorevole also hopes the board will soon consider a resolution passed by the undergraduate student council that seeks to have students and faculty members on the board, an idea supported by Bains. 

As of last night, Gottschalk said university officials were trying to reach Ladner, but it was unclear if they had done so. Ladner’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comment. 

With an interim president, an interim board chair, and an undecided severance situation, the next board meeting, on November 11, will have a full docket, and the controversy that has dominated university life and damaged the institution’s image will linger for at least a while longer. “We’re off to a good start,” Carter said. “It’s an important symbolic change, but there’s a lot still to go.” 

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