Dissecting Ladner's Legacy at the Helm of AU

Professor Stephen J. Silvia of the School of International Service addresses students and others who gathered last week to discuss the future of American University.
Professor Stephen J. Silvia of the School of International Service addresses students and others who gathered last week to discuss the future of American University. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 9, 2005

When Benjamin Ladner came to American University in 1994, he told the crowd assembled for his inaugural address that the school had reached a pivotal moment in its history.

He came to a university in turmoil, a place trying to shake off a second-choice, party-school image, a sex scandal and a series of short-term presidents.

"I came to stay," Ladner said that day in November, trustees and administrators smiling behind him, according to newspaper accounts. "I'm not going."

Tomorrow, the board of trustees meets to consider the results of an investigation into his and his wife's spending and to decide whether he will stay at AU. While board members will look at documents from auditors and lawyers, there's another important subtext to their debate: Ladner's impact on the campus, and where he has led the university, up to this pivotal moment.

Ladner and his supporters point to his accomplishments: a school now better known for its public service and global focus, an endowment that has grown dramatically, allowing renovations and new buildings to rise on campus, and the strongest freshman class it has had.

His critics say all of that is outweighed by a student protest, a no-confidence vote by the Faculty Senate, a Department of Justice investigation and errors in judgment -- such as hosting an elaborate, 13-course family engagement dinner paid by the university, regardless of his offer to repay the cost. Others say the successes of his tenure are best understood in the context of nationwide trends in student achievement and larger donations, and of faculty and student efforts.

Ladner has brought stability -- he stayed, as he told the AU community he would -- and a clear vision for the private university's future, often eloquently conveyed to donors, faculty, students. He hasn't always brought peace.

Abbey Joel Butler, a former trustee, was on the search committee and remembers meeting Ladner. "He was extraordinary," Butler said. "Great ratings from his previous position. He was a leader."

When Ladner arrived, the endowment was $29 million, and only 6 percent of alumni donated to the private university in Northwest Washington. Freshmen had an average grade point of 3.2 and SAT scores of 1133. The school received 4,600 applications. Tuition was about $16,000.

His salary was $225,000.

Some students got mad right away. "In his first budget, he raised tuition by 6 percent," said Adam Eidinger, who was a student then, paying for school himself. He and his friends started asking why money was being spent on redecorating the new house AU bought for Ladner and on a new logo for the school.

"He was into image," Eidinger said, "into selling the idea of the school."

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