My Side of the AU Debate

By Benjamin Ladner
Saturday, October 8, 2005

Over the years I've watched public figures across the philosophical spectrum become objects of feeding frenzies by their peers, the press and the public. Once it's open season, they hardly have a chance to tell their side of the story, much less to confront their critics. Worse yet, whatever ideas they stood for or accomplishments they achieved are soon forgotten. Whether or not the charges proved true, all anyone remembers is that they were charged with something.

Now that it's happening to me, I find myself wanting to explain why I'm not guilty of these baseless allegations, while also continuing to press the central ideas and values that have marked my leadership at American University and to explain why these far-reaching changes should be continued regardless of what happens to me in the days ahead.

Within the context of the fishbowl, crisis-laden, stamina-draining character of a university president's life, a successful president learns quickly that the most severe and strenuous demand of all is entirely self-imposed and deeply personal. It is the demand for embodying in one's own character, decisions and actions the best of the moral and intellectual values of the university. It is a demand that I have embraced for nearly 12 years at AU. Now it has become an issue with which the university itself is struggling.

There have been deliberate leaks to the press -- selectively negative and taken out of context -- of allegations contained in a report to the board of trustees. Allegations concerning the university chef, for example, fail to explain that of the 180 or so events over three years, only a small number were personal and should have been paid by me. It was my mistake, and I have written a check for $21,000 to cover those and some other inadvertent expenses as well. I will address other false accusations in detail in the proper venue.

Controversy comes with the territory for presidents of any major institution in our society. But what shouldn't come with the territory of a major university is the "verdict first, trial later" mentality that is gripping our campus and spilling out into the media. My offer to meet with faculty, deans, staff and student leaders to explain my side of the story has been uniformly rejected. I've even been forbidden by the chair of the university's board of trustees to set foot on campus or talk to faculty and students about the charges against me.

Imagine any other controversial issue that our students and faculty might be debating -- from the Iraq war to Supreme Court nominations to questions about university policies. If anyone -- an undergraduate or graduate student, a professor or a college administrator -- were to be muzzled as a matter of official university policy, it would be challenged with leaflets, demonstrations and rallies -- and rightly so.

So why muzzle me? Maybe I've become a lightning rod because I've always been a force for change at American University -- at first, because we had to restore the institution, later because I became convinced we had to reshape it.

When I assumed the leadership of American University in 1994, I was the fifth president in four years. The university was in danger of losing faculty, funds, students and its most important, if intangible, asset: its reputation as a center of academic excellence. Since then, the university's rankings, fundraising, faculty and staff salaries and financial aid for students have all been moving up. These gains happened through careful planning. We created dozens of programs throughout the world; established new American Universities abroad; and launched an "academic diplomacy" initiative that opened effective dialogue in countries where other forms of international outreach had failed.

I acknowledge having made mistakes along the way, including minor and inadvertent financial errors, and I should be called to account -- just as any other person in a position of responsibility should. But earlier crises created the opportunity for American University to debate its future and decide how to serve our community, our country and our world more effectively. If this crisis becomes an occasion for scapegoating and silencing, an important opportunity for recovering our sense of direction will have been missed.

What is now in danger of being lost in the heated exchanges, damaged relationships and misinformation that have characterized this crisis is the most important issue of all: What is it doing to American University?

My confidence in the vibrancy, intelligence and resiliency of AU's students, faculty, staff, board, alumni and supporters gives me hope that even in the midst of the storm, the AU community will embrace its own self-imposed demand for expressing its deepest values -- respect for truth, civility, open-mindedness, fairness and the dignity of every individual.

The writer is president of American University.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company