By Susan Kinzie and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 30, 2005
A majority on American University's Board of Trustees has concluded that suspended President Benjamin Ladner must be replaced, according to two sources close to the board. One trustee said some board members are negotiating to get Ladner a generous package for his departure.
Yesterday, 13 of 25 board members, including some of Ladner's strongest supporters, criticized the handling of an investigation into his spending but said in a statement that they had "serious concerns" about the president. They agreed that it is time for new leadership, according to a source chosen to speak for the group and a trustee with direct knowledge of the deliberations.
Just two days ago, Ladner's supporters were angling to get him back on campus with an $800,000 salary, most of his former benefits and his wife, Nancy Ladner, on the payroll, according to sources involved in the talks.
But sentiment shifted, sources said, after a group of trustees visited the private university in Northwest Washington on Wednesday to hear directly from campus leaders, and student protesters surged across the campus and into the boardroom.
The full board is to meet Oct. 10 to discuss the results of the investigation. Members could vote to fire Ladner if he has not resigned.
One board member, who has criticized Ladner, said some of Ladner's supporters were seeking "an extraordinarily generous" package of compensation if he leaves. The trustee, like other sources for this article, insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Ladner did not return calls.
Ladner has had staunch support from some trustees, including several on the self-designated Ad Hoc Committee -- 13 trustees concerned about the conduct of the investigation. Their statement yesterday praised him for bringing "unprecedented growth and achievement" to the school, which struggled through a series of presidents before he took over in 1994.
Student applications are up, they wrote, and the academic records of entering freshmen are stronger. Fundraising and financial aid to students are "at historic levels."
But the statement also said, "Like the rest of the University community, we have serious concerns regarding the issues that have been raised with respect to President Ladner."
The battle over Ladner's fate has been conducted largely between two trustee factions, loosely grouped in the Ad Hoc Committee and the board's Executive Committee.
Members of the Ad Hoc Committee and other colleagues blamed the Executive Committee, led by board Chairman Leslie E. Bains, for launching an audit -- which questioned more than $500,000 in spending -- and suspending Ladner in August. Some of them have said she targeted Ladner because he opposed her bid for the chairmanship. Some felt the investigation took new rules and applied them retroactively; his spending, they said, was in line with the terms of his contract.
The Ad Hoc Committee called yesterday for decisions on the future of the university to be made by the full board.
Thomas A. Gottschalk, vice chairman of the board and an ally of Bains's, did not return phone calls. But in a letter to the acting president, Cornelius Kerwin, that was widely distributed on campus this week, he explained the Executive Committee's decision to suspend Ladner. He said the president was "vigorously disputing" the initial conclusions of the audit and lacked an understanding of how the spending could be perceived.
"There were allegations that the president had been uncooperative with the Audit Committee's inquiries, which itself is a serious charge, and was perceived as intimidating witnesses."
And committee members did not think the president would be able to answer questions while leading the university, Gottschalk wrote.
Last night, Bains defended the investigation. She said she told faculty members, deans and students Wednesday that the board had begun to institute changes -- ensuring that Ladner's compensation was not excessive for a leader of a nonprofit institution, as required by law.
Yesterday, it became clear that even those trustees who were among Ladner's most fervent supporters recognized that he would have to leave, sources said.
On Wednesday evening, hundreds of students rallied on the main quad, shouting into bullhorns and waving signs reading "Hail to the Thief" and "Ben Ladner has a French chef. Adjuncts eat Ramen Noodles." Someone suggested going to find the trustees, and the crowd hurried through campus, downstairs, across a street, yelling, "Who pays his salary? We pay his salary!" outside Butler Pavilion, where trustees were meeting on the sixth floor.
Student government President Kyle Taylor was just finishing his speech to seven trustees when he heard the roar. "Look out the window," he said he told them. "Listen to those students. They represent 11,000 members of the community and 90 percent of the budget, and they feel incredibly let down by our president."
Students stormed upstairs and demanded to speak to board members, and 20 were let in.
"I think it was the tipping point," Taylor said, and a couple of trustees agreed.
Yesterday afternoon, the Faculty Senate voted unanimously in favor of a no-confidence motion, urging Ladner to resign. It also resolved to discuss the governance structure at the university soon.
"He's become a liability to our university," senior Megan Linehan said.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.