American University professors, deans and students, irate over a $1 million severance package offered to former president Richard Berendzen, have launched an intensive campaign to persuade the university's Board of Trustees to rescind the offer.
During the last several days, news of the proposed settlement has mobilized virtually every constituency at the normally quiet Northwest Washington school, prompting a spate of protest letters and several student demonstrations.
"This is an issue that has rocked the campus," said Valerie Morris, chairman of the University Senate. "I don't remember seeing people this worked up over any issue," said Morris, a performing arts professor who has worked there for 16 years.
The outpouring is a reaction to a Nov. 2 vote by the AU trustees to give Berendzen a package totaling more than $1 million if he agrees to sever his remaining ties with the school.
Berendzen resigned as president in April, as police investigated indecent telephone calls he had placed from his office, but he technically still is a tenured professor of physics.
Berendzen pleaded guilty in Fairfax County last May to two charges of making obscene telephone calls from his AU office, and was sentenced to two 30-day jail terms that were suspended on the condition that he remain in outpatient psychological treatment.
In their complaints, students and professors are criticizing the size of the offer, which sources have said would consist of a tenure buyout, outstanding contractual obligations and a settlement payment.
"We don't have very much money at AU, the tuition is ridiculously high, and there is not enough financial aid," said Matt Nicely, a third-year law student and president of the Student Bar Association.
Students, professors and administrators also are concerned that the trustees may have acted inappropriately and without adequate consultation of campus groups.
In recent days, the trustees' action has been challenged in many ways.
On Monday, all six campus deans dispatched a rare joint memo to the trustees' chairman, Edward Carr, questioning the settlement and asking to meet with the board. Several deans interviewed yesterday confirmed the existence of the one-page memo but would not describe it in detail.
The deans' letter was issued the same day as a separate memo by the University Senate's executive committee.
Groups within the university's schools and colleges also have registered written complaints.
Last night, students planned to hold the fourth campus demonstration in a week -- this one after the school's first preseason basketball game. Student leaders planned a fifth rally today.
"What we are looking for is for the board to withdraw that offer," said Samer Farha, a senior who has helped to organize the student protests.
"We are also looking for Dr. Berendzen to make a decision," Farha said. "Does he want to come teach here, in which case we aren't going to be paying him $1 million? Or does he want to resign his tenure, in which case the university isn't going to be paying him anything?"
Meanwhile, sources said that a group of faculty leaders plan today to issue a letter to Berendzen himself.
"It expresses surprise that he would have requested a financial settlement beyond his contract agreement," one source said.
Sources have said that the settlement is not final, and that details of the offer are being negotiated by attorneys for the university and for Berendzen.
Reached last night, Carr would not comment. Berendzen could not be reached yesterday. His attorney, Richard Marks, has not confirmed the settlement and said yesterday, "I'm not in a position to respond to speculation."
Despite widespread opposition to the board's action, student, faculty and administrators said the campus remains divided over Berendzen -- and how the school should treat him.
Many said they remain fond of him personally and believe he should return to teach, if he wants.
But others contended his presence would hinder the university's recovery from the embarrassing circumstances of his resignation.
Professors and deans also said they are eager not to alienate the trustees, many of whom are local alumni recruited by Berendzen.
"We are not trying to be confrontational," said Louis Goodman, dean of the school of international service. Nevertheless, he said, "there is campuswide concern about the integrity of the university."