The American University Board of Trustees plans to convene Dec. 6 for a rare, special meeting to rethink its offer of a $1 million severance package to former president Richard E. Berendzen.
The board scheduled the meeting this week in response to widespread campus protests over the proposed payout to Berendzen, who resigned last spring while under police investigation for making indecent telephone calls from his office. The trustees authorized the settlement at a closed meeting three weeks ago, on the condition that Berendzen relinquish his remaining affiliation as a tenured physics professor.
Earlier this week, the university's acting president dispatched the latest written plea to the board to rescind its offer to Berendzen. In a letter, Milton Greenberg urged the board to discuss the settlement with campus groups and then to reconsider it, in order to allay "serious rifts" between the trustees and the rest of the school.
"During my entire career, including more than twenty years as a senior academic administrator, never have I seen another campus-based issue evoke this degree of anguish," Greenberg wrote. "Never have I seen so many speak with a single voice."
Students, faculty members and deans have complained that the board voted to approve the settlement, which is not final, without consulting anyone on campus. They are particularly concerned that the trustees acted on a tenure question, which traditionally is the responsibility of a university's faculty.
Some also contend that the package is too expensive for a university with a relatively small endowment and high costs for students.
Berendzen's status at AU has been ambiguous since his April resignation. Technically, he holds a job as professor, but he has not worked on campus and has not followed the necessary steps to get a sabbatical or a leave.
Berendzen pleaded guilty in May to two charges of making obscene phone calls. He received two 30-day prison sentences, which were suspended on condition that he remain in outpatient psychiatric treatment.
Greenberg cautioned in the letter that the controversy, and the publicity it has attracted, could impair the university. "The reputation of The American University, built over many years of hard work by many individuals, is a fragile trust," he wrote. "We are a strong university, but our reputation in the community could be severely damaged."
Several trustees reached yesterday would not discuss the matter publicly. Privately, a few trustees have said recently that they believe the proposed payout is too large.
Berendzen's attorney, Richard Marks, said that neither he nor his client would comment.
The board's special meeting indicates that at least some trustees are uncomfortable with the severance package, which reportedly would consist of three parts: a tenure buyout; money owed to Berendzen under his job contract; and a settlement payment.
In order to convene such a meeting, the first emergency session called by the board in more than a decade, at least seven of the board's 48 members had to request it.
A university spokeswoman emphasized that, by rethinking the settlement, the board would not necessarily abandon it. But on campus, student and faculty leaders said they believed that the trustees may be beginning to pay attention to their opinions.
Carr, the board chairman, met Friday with a few student representatives, and he met on campus this week with deans and with leaders of the University Senate. Board members also have scheduled informal breakfast sessions with campus groups next week.