Deconstructing a Man of Contrasts

By Susan Kinzie and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 17, 2005

Before the audit, before the no-confidence votes, before trustees removed him as president of American University, Benjamin Ladner taught ethics.

That's the heart of his now contradictory story: He's a philosopher, known for the eloquence of his speeches, with more than a little Southern preacher in him. His friends describe him as an honorable, charismatic leader. But his critics -- who have been growing in number since an investigation found that the Ladners spent university money on foie gras, limousines, French wine and family parties -- say he's unethical, manipulative and imperious.

Between praise and condemnation, there seems to be little middle ground. Even after voting to dismiss him Oct. 10, some members of the university's Board of Trustees said they still don't agree on who he is or what he did. They continue to argue as they decide whether he should get a hefty severance package, stay on as the private university's most highly paid professor, or walk away with nothing.

Ladner and his wife, Nancy, declined to comment for this story. But in an interview last month, as he talked about the investigation and the generous terms of his disputed contract, he reminded reporters that morality always is set in context. "I'm a philosopher," he said. "It's a hard thing for me to step forward and say, 'I'm moral.'

"I do feel I've done what I've done with intentional integrity," he said, "within the context of the guidelines."

The Boy From Alabama

One thing people agree on is his past.

People looked up to Benny Ladner when he was growing up in Mobile, Ala., in the 1940s and '50s. His family was active in the church, and he was headed for seminary. He was a high school all-American basketball player, earned good grades, won oratory awards. He dated Nancy Bullard, a cheerleader at his big public high school.

After graduating from Baylor University and Southern Seminary, he chose academics over the ministry: He earned a doctorate in religion at Duke University.

He married, had two sons and taught philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the 1970s. His creative, Socratic teaching style won him awards. He took a class hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Once, a former colleague said, he walked into a classroom in a gorilla suit.

His family lived on 18 acres in the North Carolina countryside with four horses, a bunch of dogs, a tractor, a big garden and students always drifting in and out of the house talking about philosophy, said his oldest son, David Ladner.

In the early 1980s, Benjamin Ladner became president of the National Faculty and moved to Atlanta. "Ben provided wonderful leadership" at that organization, which encourages professional growth among teachers, said Michael Mahoney, a Princeton University professor and chairman of the National Faculty's Board of Trustees.

He ran into Nancy Bullard again, back in Mobile, both divorced with two children, and they began dating. They married in 1982.

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