There is the stereotypical university president, a tweedy sort who divides his time between calming trustees, cajoling alums, chewing faculty club grub, cheering through the odd football game and maybe collecting a couple of lectures for publication with a ponderous title by a ponderous publisher.
And then there is Richard Berendzen.
Berendzen does television, jets off every two to three days to give speeches around the country, attends 11 parties a week, shows up at everything from charity balls to embassy soire'es to Live Aid, keeps a diary for publication as a new book with the title "Is My Armor Straight?" -- and collects names (Walter Cronkite, Larry Hagman, Jackie Onassis, Sen. Paul Simon, Dorothy Hamill, Phil Donahue, Farrah Fawcett, Billie Jean King, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Christopher Reeve, Sen. John Glenn and Koo Stark -- to name a few of hundreds who get mention in the book, which comes complete with an index that reads like Barbara Walters' Rolodex).
"My job is to increase the visibility of the university," he says.
America now knows about American, which is just what Berendzen wanted. If it is also increasingly aware of American's president, the kid who went from staring at the stars in the Texas sky to working the stars on the Eastern Shuttle the way a politician works a fundraiser, well, Berendzen says that's a byproduct. That was never the idea.
Thursday, Dec. 15
". . . we head to prominent Washingtonians Bill and Buffy Cafritz's holiday dinner-dance. The hotel's private dining room resembles a winter's woods, with real trees and snowlike decorations. With large, expressive eyes and an estate necklace, Buffy looks like the perfect Washington hostess she is. Gail's dress pales in tonight's crowd. The dinner party we had expected for twenty people becomes one for a hundred: Mike Deaver, William French Smith, Bill Moss, Luther Hodges, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Warner, Nancy Dickerson, David Lloyd Kreeger, and many more. And a glamorous New York group augments the Washington crowd . . ."
From "Is My Armor Straight? A Year in the Life of a University President," by Richard Berendzen, published by Adler & Adler.
When Richard Berendzen and his wife Gail moved into the Spring Valley house AU provides its president, they knew it needed some work to accommodate the comings and goings, dinners and lunches that would engulf their lives. What had been a sun porch -- pleasant, but useless -- was extended to seat 75 for dinner. The glass walls slide away, opening onto a pool and a lawn so that guests swimming or dancing outside can still hear the Glenn Miller, Michael Jackson and Beatles spinning inside the Berendzens' Wurlitzer jukebox, a massive carved-wood affair the president shows off with delight, grinning at the ingenuity of a machine that can satisfy the most varied musical tastes, that can keep everybody happy.
Making people happy is part of the job as Berendzen sees it. A happy dinner guest will be more likely to tell a prospective student about AU, to deliver a commencement address, to sign a check the next morning.
"There is, as Lyndon Johnson said, nothing like pressing flesh. If you don't maintain contacts, they all grow cold," says Berendzen. "There are so many potential causes in this city, you have to make your plea and you have to remake it and remake it and remake it. Another problem we have is everyone's transient here. They grew up in Oregon, went to the University of Chicago, they're living in Washington for two years and then they're leaving."
They were leaving, he says, without giving anything to AU -- no money, no students, no attention, to a school desperately in need of all three. Berendzen's goal was to change that. And he has. A new sports center is under construction, named after Saudi arms middleman Adnan Khashoggi, who donated $5 million toward the building. In the five years Berendzen has been president, AU's endowment has gone from $5 million to $15 million. In the last three years, applications have increased 15 percent annually. The board of trustees, Berendzen says proudly, is the richest of any university's in the country, thanks to the patrons he's attracted -- Khashoggi, said to be one of the world's richest men, prime among them.
And if George Washington University's endowment increased sixfold in the same period and Georgetown's applications also rose by 15 percent in 1985, that's beside the point: Those are different kinds of schools, with a larger and older alumni base and stronger reputations. And anyway, it's not Berendzen's job to sell George Washington or Georgetown.
It is his job to sell AU, and the figures, the names, the activities, are trumpeted constantly. And attention is paid. According to Berendzen's re'sume', he made 268 TV and radio appearances between January 1980 and May 1985, ranging from Merv Griffin to "Nightline" to a spot in a Khashoggi profile on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." That number, the re'sume' points out, "does not include approximately 400 news items pertaining to Dr. Berendzen that have been aired by local stations and by network radio and television."
Berendzen also talks to education groups around the country, to parents, to prospective students -- more than 800 lectures and popular talks to scholarly, professional and general audiences since 1970. It helps if you love to talk. And Berendzen loves to talk. He remembers the time when, nostalgic for his teaching days, he gave an impromptu lecture in an elevator full of strangers: "I missed it so much, I just turned around and said, 'What have you always wanted to know about the sun?' "
"I'm a professor," he says, "and professors need to profess."
So much so that, at the slightest opportunity, he rockets out of his deep, fake-leather armchair and launches into a rhapsody on the immensity of the universe, his voice filled with gee-whiz excitement as he points to the photographs of stars upon stars that decorate his office walls.
Berendzen's Basic Administrator Outfit of striped tie and dark suit always seems a little loose, as if he has leaned back and then shot out of that chair once too often to maintain the crisp appearance of early morning. Eyes wreathed in wrinkles, at 47 he looks perpetually tired but remains perpetually alert, perpetually enthusiastic about AU, astronomy, his family, his friends, his visitor's life, anything, in fact, anyone might want to talk about.
Like the diplomat some of his friends think he might become when he finally leaves AU, Berendzen knows Washington is a wheel waiting to be oiled with compliments and attention. In his book the oil flows.
Hosts are "ever-gracious," party conversation "scintillates" and guest lists "sparkle." Trustee Nancy Dickerson is a "striking TV personality," trustee Sondra Bender "is fifty, she looks thirty-five, with a broad smile and youthful figure," trustee Ursula Meese is "perhaps the most unpretentious person I know." President Reagan is "irresistibly charming." Potential AU supporter Greek-Cypriot builder George Paraskevaides is "a delightful, mischievous man," White House counsel Fred Fielding is "a truly funny man," and comedian Phyllis Diller is "petite and surprisingly beautiful."
The big wheel, of course, is Khashoggi. He and his don't do badly in "A Year in the Life of a University President." Wife Lamia is a "statuesque Italian beauty," daughter Nabila "startlingly beautiful . . . doe-eyed and long-legged."
"Whatever the sternest critic might have felt about the man Khashoggi," Berendzen writes of the controversial billionaire, "after seeing Nabila, it must be forgotten."
Saturday, October 29
The group with me stares unabashedly, as I did upon entering his home the first time, glancing past the Picasso, the Kandinsky, the Le'ger, and the interior garden, through the massive windows, to the city below . . . By two o'clock I am finished; the group is weary, but alert. I round up the Washington contingent and we thank the Khashoggis and Shaheens. As Adnan shows us to the elevator, I hand him a notebook about the center. He smiles and says, 'I'll read this, Professor.' I think as we depart that he has as much charm as money. All of us agree: we will remember this adventure forever.
Nothing brought AU more attention than Adnan Khashoggi and his May 1984 announcement that he'd give $5 million for a new sports center. Explaining the decision later, Khashoggi said of Berendzen, "He presented his case very well, and he is a convincing, charming and hard-working business manager."
The donation came at a time when Khashoggi, who had left the United States in 1976 after he was subpoenaed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, was increasing his activities and visibility here again. This fall, an energy firm he owns received a $72 million federal loan guarantee for an alcohol-fuels plant in Louisiana, and his U.S. company, Triad America, has invested in a hotel and office project in Utah.
The 1976 SEC subpoena was the result of allegations that he was the conduit for payoffs from U.S. defense contractors to Saudi officials, but he refused to appear and left the country, saying he was not under U.S. jurisdiction. More than two years later he testified voluntarily. No charges were ever brought against him.
"He never was in fact found to be guilty of anything ," says Berendzen. Since Khashoggi joined AU's board of trustees, Berendzen says, "I've gotten two or three letters and that's it. On the other side, I've gotten several hundred positive letters. Some people said he was too flamboyant, but frankly, sometimes it's jealousy.
"I think he's taken up a bit with the idea of a national university," Berendzen says, explaining why he thinks the billionaire gave the money.
But Khashoggi brings Berendzen more than money.
"The tremendously wealthy and powerful people aren't easy to get to know," says Berendzen. "He can be very helpful in introducing them. I go to receptions and dinners at his house and it's just an absolute Who's Who of the New York business world.
"You've got to go where the wealthy people are," he says. "We enjoy some of that, but it is work. That night job -- as you might call it -- people outside the Beltway might not understand. It has the frivolous term of 'a party,' but that ain't so.
"I really don't like parties," he says. "I've never liked parties. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I was a physics major at MIT. I was an astrophysics student at Harvard. Does that sound like someone who enjoys parties? Sometimes I stand outside before I go in and I have to convince myself to do it."
But somehow he gets through the door.
Saturday, November 19
A string quartet plays a haunting rumba beside our table, stopping conversation. During the interlude, I scan the red velvet walls, the room full of Cartier and Bulgari jewelry, and realize I am sitting next to one of the world's wealthiest men in a room that has served European aristocracy for decades. What is this fellow from East Dallas doing here? What has this got to do with physics? Or the birth of the universe? I stop wondering as the music ends and our conversation resumes. I must be prepared to discuss Middle Eastern policy, the Reagan administration, Democratic presidential contenders, Grenada, the federal deficit, the latest Geneva watch creation, and J.F.K.'s role as president -- or anything else that interests him.
When Richard Berendzen arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he felt it immediately. This son of a man who worked in a hardware store, this student who would have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week working, a freshman with a wife and child, was an outsider.
"Coming from East Dallas, a family that had never gone to college, to up there in Cambridge with kids who'd gone to Exeter and Andover and Bronx Science . . ." he says, and the sentence fades as if the names of the prestigious high schools say it all. "I found myself sitting there with a child and saying, 'What are you doing, Berendzen? Come on!' But I found that by staying up late enough, you can do it."
Within three years the marriage was over, the wife and daughter back in Texas. The late nights continued. Berendzen moved on to Harvard, where he received a doctorate in education, what he calls "an interdisciplinary PhD in education, astronomy, history of science and sociology," then on to Boston University to teach. He married again, had another daughter, and in 1973 came to AU as dean of arts and sciences, discovering Washington, where the willingness to put in more late nights would prove useful, but where he would have less and less time to spend with students.
A vein of frustration with his young charges runs through his book. Take his description of a conversation with Don Triezenberg, vice president for development and university relations, who has just met with "a self-appointed task force on the sports and convocation center":
"They want to know precisely when it will be built. They offer extensive advice on fund raising with the implication that we are not trying or that we do not know what to do. Finally, Don tells them: 'What we need is not your advice but your money. I have neither the time nor the interest to listen to anyone tell me how to raise funds. What I will pay attention to is your cash. Will you graduating seniors sign a statement now pledging to give $100 a year for the next five years?'
"We dislike being pushed to such a situation, but some students' arrogance is almost intolerable. Basically they say, 'I want it, so provide it. Now.' Facts and realities are irrelevant."
When Berendzen was a student he didn't have time for task forces or other undergraduate preoccupations. "I have to remind myself my experience has been unusual," he says. "For the average 18-year-old to laugh and be silly and frivolous is the more traditional way to do things. I didn't go to college parties. I worked."
And now he works Washington, often returning to his desk close to midnight to keep up with his less public chores. Many nights Berendzen and his wife Gail barely see each other. He goes to one function, she another.
"I realized when Richard was appointed that this was a two-person job," Gail Berendzen says, and so she left a position developing curriculum at Georgetown Day School to host lunches, teas, discussions and meetings and generally serve as an unpaid AU booster. But like many wives of university presidents who have bridled at the assumption that when schools get their husbands, they also get them, Gail Berendzen says this spring she may give it up and return to the salaried world.
Berendzen, who only needs five hours of sleep a night but can get by on four because "you learn to yawn with your mouth shut," has himself talked of change. In the spring of 1984 he wrote that he was so tired and busy he had cut back on social events and says now he is worn out, but the meeting and greeting continues and, friends and observers say, the excitement does too.
"He really loves this city," says AU Provost Milton Greenberg. "He's like a child about this city -- as a city, with its monuments, the people in it. He's really still in awe of it."
Awe has always had a place in Berendzen's life.
"The cliche's are absolutely true," he says. "The sky in Texas is big and clear. I would stare up at the stars, and I started asking, 'Who am I? Why am I here?' There are times when I'm sitting here wondering why I'm thinking about steam lines and dripping faucets -- I shifted from doing what I wanted to doing what's necessary for the company store."
Sunday, January 15
I went to AU because I was attracted by the dream of a great national university in the capital city. And that is why I have stayed. But is the dream practical? . . . At a better known institution, I would benefit personally. Presidents of Ivy League universities automatically become important; presidents of major research universities routinely are invited onto corporate boards. They are worthy, even outstanding, or they would not hold those posts; nonetheless, they benefit from their title. Then, again, so do I. Perhaps I do not have the opportunities of some presidents, but I benefit from Washington . . .
At a time when the federal government is tight-fisted and the baby boom just an echo on college campuses, when university presidents are finding it necessary to be increasingly aggressive salesmen, some see Berendzen as a harbinger of what the future will demand from rulers of the ivory tower: They must spend less time on academic concerns, more time campaigning for their schools.
"I think he is just a little ahead of the curve in a larger development which is going to have to come," says John Phillips, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
"I think presidents are becoming much more sophisticated about the media," says Madeleine Green, director of the Center for Leadership Development at the American Council on Education. "Before the pressures of the marketplace and the terrible financial pressures of the last decade, they were kind of immune. They thought academe was a protected category. Academe was on the side of the angels, and if you were good the money came.
"It has come hard to some academics," she says. "Many college presidents at some point were professors, and professors lead a very different life. What on earth prepares them to be head of a very big public relations firm?"
"I'm sure the media can be useful," says Lloyd Elliott, president of George Washington. "I don't feel very comfortable myself in front of a television camera and I suppose that is one reason I have never really pursued it. However, I would not in any sense criticize anyone who does it.
"The social scene is again one in which everyone participates in accordance with his or her priorities. The first year I made it a priority to attend a lot of embassy receptions and dinners. I don't do it as much any more. If I have business to do with an ambassador, I do it within business hours."
But Berendzen seems to take to public relations instinctively. Look at the book: How many university presidents would include a meeting with Koo Stark, briefly notorious both for posing in flimsy attire and for dating Prince Andrew?
"The tedium of the day-to-day work -- no reader's going to want to slog through that, so you want to make it more interesting," says Berendzen about the celebrities celebrated in his book. "But I also wanted to get some educational messages across."
Berendzen has been talking about the need for educational reforms for years, and as provost introduced a core curriculum, tightened standards and beefed up the honors program. Most observers -- within and without AU -- agree the school has begun to attract better students. Since 1980, the average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score of incoming freshmen has risen from 1,006 to 1,075, the kind of statistic that along with all the publicity has generally raised the morale of a school that has suffered from something of an inferiority complex in a city of four other major universities.
Long dismissed as a party school (students called it Camp AU), the 11,000-student university founded in 1893 was better known for its high percentage of foreign students than for its academic or financial health. The $15 million endowment is minuscule compared with Georgetown's $140 million and George Washington's $170 million. But by increasing his endowment threefold over the last two years, Berendzen bettered the average of private universities, which was only double in the same period. He beat the record of his own school as well: In the previous five years, the AU endowment went only from $4.4 million to $4.9 million.
But despite the demands of the times and the advances for the school, there remains the question of Berendzen's style.
Critics point to the December cover of Dossier magazine -- a picture showing Berendzen inside a suit of armor -- as inappropriate. Berendzen wore the armor once before, to a faculty meeting that he says promised to be contentious. The appearance prompted the title of his book.
Even John Silber, Boston University president and an early admirer of Berendzen who tried to keep him at BU, says of the armored faculty meeting: "That one puts me off . . . It wasn't the 'Donahue' show, for chrissake. The thing about Berendzen is he doesn't need that kind of gimmick."
AU literature professor Frank Turaj, however, attended the meeting with the president in shining armor and thought it hilarious. "Some people will say the position of a university president should have the dignity of an archbishopric," he says. "Campuses are full of dull and serious people, so everyone obviously doesn't respond the same way."
Peter Easley, a dormitory adviser who graduated this spring, says he was bothered by Berendzen's style during his four years at the school.
"It appears as if it's his own reputation being promoted first and the university comes after that," says Easley. "I think he's done some very good things, but all of that energy wasted on self-promotion is to the detriment of the university. Yes, the university's benefiting, but if it comes second to Dick's own self-promotion . . ."
Where does it all lead?
Berendzen says he has no plans for the future beyond American University and thus no stage onto which he wants to promote himself. Yes, he has been "approached" about politics -- no mention of by whom -- and declined, he says. Just not interested.
"When I got here, everyone assumed that whatever I did was not because I thought it was a good thing to do, but because it was leading to something else," he says, and then repeats the rumors he has heard: "Berendzen wants to be secretary of education, or he wants to be president."
Or he wants a Cabinet position. Or he wanted to be secretary of the Smithsonian. He rejected Smithsonian overtures, he says, but the rumors persist. He wants . . . He dreams . . . He sees other stars ahead . . .
But no, according to Berendzen.
"I like institution building," he says. "I like creating something."
And to help build his institution he has written a book, and the guy who likes to talk has really talked. The collapse of his first marriage, discussions with his teen-age daughter about the meaning of life, his wife's anxieties about her future, his nights spent in faraway cities wondering if it's worth it -- everything's there.
Sunday, January 15
I find it increasingly difficult to separate what is AU from what is me. There is nothing new in that; this ambiguity just has been increasing lately. Except for my family, I live for little else than the institution.
When a man and his cause begin to merge, there is the danger of going a bit too far. Berendzen now admits to having second thoughts about wearing the armor for Dossier. "I feel pretty funny about that," he says.
As for the book, the reviews aren't in yet. Berendzen's just beginning to hear reactions and says they've been positive, but still he worries. In the course of 344 pages, he has revealed himself.
"Very much," he says. "Maybe too much."