Mr. Ladner's 'Mistakes'

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Saturday, October 8, 2005

ON THE OPPOSITE page today we publish an essay of self-defense by the suspended president of American University. We agree with Benjamin Ladner that he should be allowed to speak to the faculty and others as his future is debated on campus. We also would suggest that much of the fault leading to his bitter confrontation with some university trustees lies with the trustees themselves for insufficient oversight and other sins. But we have a harder time accepting his assertion that his lavish, university-funded lifestyle reflects nothing but a few "minor and inadvertent" mistakes. In fact, his inability to understand the larger problem is one reason that he no longer seems suited to be president.

When the trustees meet Monday to consider Mr. Ladner's future, they will have before them a report concluding that he should repay the university more than $115,000 for personal expenditures, and that -- given his university-paid fringe benefits -- he should have reported another $350,000 in income on his tax returns for the past three years. Mr. Ladner has repaid $21,000 of the disputed charges and says the rest were permitted under the terms of his contract. It's not clear what contract was in force, but let's assume it was, as Mr. Ladner argues, the more generous 1997 agreement he reached with the board's chairman at the time, apparently after scant consultation with other board members. That contract requires the university to pay "all costs for . . . dining, housekeeping services and residence staff"; to provide a car and driver for Mr. Ladner along with a car for his wife; and to pay "entertainment and first-class travel expenses reasonably incurred in the performance of his duties as president."

A nice deal, particularly on top of Mr. Ladner's $800,000 salary -- and one he pushed to unseemly limits. When the Ladners traveled to New York, they ate at the city's swankiest restaurants, dropping $199.25 at the Four Seasons, $368 at Daniel and $173.47 at Jean Georges, and they had the university pay the bill. Mr. Ladner gave his chef a "gift" -- underwritten by the university -- of a $503.15 "celebration dinner" at a Ritz-Carlton in Virginia. Though she had a university-supplied car, Nancy Ladner hired a limousine to take her to lunch with the wife of the ambassador of Turkmenistan. She hosted a $5,274 luncheon for the Gibson Island Garden Club (the Ladners have a house on the island in Maryland); this, Mr. Ladner's lawyers said, was justified "to promote the university and to expand its fundraising base."

These are examples of a pattern of error -- of judgment, if not legal interpretation. Not just once but repeatedly Mr. Ladner behaved in a manner inappropriate to the head of a nonprofit institution, one that lacks a bountiful endowment and that was asking its faculty to accept minimal raises. It's in the university's interest to resolve this controversy soon, and in a way that facilitates the departure of the suspended president.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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