Former American University president Richard E. Berendzen said yesterday he is prepared to abandon the idea of a $1 million severance package from the school because he really wants to return to teach physics.
Berendzen announced his preference in a written statement that is his first response to a furor that erupted on campus over news that the university's trustees had authorized a financial settlement if he severed his affiliation with the school.
The three-page statement, released to reporters and the trustees' chairman, does not resolve the issue of the settlement, which drew swift, harsh complaints from deans, professors and students on the Northwest Washington campus.
The Berendzen statement does not say when he would return. It does not spell out the conditions under which he would accept a teaching job. It does not begin the formalities necessary for an administrator to rejoin the teaching force.
A lawyer for Berendzen said yesterday that his client might revive the settlement proposal if he cannot work out a professor's job that suited him.
Nevertheless, Berendzen wrote that, by issuing the statement, "I have initiated steps that I hope will bring harmony to the university that I love so dearly."
His letter is the latest turn in a curious dance between American University and Berendzen that began in April, when he abruptly resigned. At first, he said that he simply was exhausted after a decade as a workaholic university leader who was a relentless fund-raiser and a fixture on the Washington social circuit.
But it soon emerged that Berendzen was under investigation by Fairfax County police for making indecent telephone calls from his office. He then checked himself into a sexual disorders clinic. In May, he pleaded guilty to two charges of making obscene telephone calls and was sentenced to two 30-day jail terms, which were suspended on the condition that he continue to get psychiatric counseling.
Since then, his relationship to the university has been ambiguous. He said during the summer that he wanted a sabbatical, but took no formal steps to obtain one. In lunches with trustees during the summer and fall, he apparently told some that he intended to return, while informing others that he would prefer a buyout of his tenured status at the university.
Meanwhile, the campus was divided over whether it wanted its former leader to come back.
In his statement, Berendzen gives his first public account of the circumstances that preceded the trustees' Nov. 2 vote to authorize the settlement. The trustees, after an acrimonious debate during a closed meeting, did not complete the settlement but agreed to let attorneys for the university and the former president negotiate its details.
Berendzen states that he wrote last June to the university's lawyer, asking to return. But, he wrote, "I received troubling news. Key individuals in the university community indicated that they did not appreciate the medical nature of my trouble, and that they were not receptive to the notion of my returning to the university at any time or in any capacity. Rather, I was told, I should accept a lump-sum payment . . . . "
One campus source said yesterday that Berendzen asked during the summer for a "chaired" professorship -- an eminent position at any university -- with special travel money, a secretary and help from graduate students.
Berendzen said he was "stunned and deeply hurt" by opposition to his return. "But I did not want to cause more strain or to return to a place that did not want me." So, he said, he began "to discuss the proposed settlement. There were proposals and counterproposals, and long negotiations."
And afterward, there was opposition -- so strong that the trustees, in a rare move, have scheduled a special meeting next week to rethink their offer.
But in his letter, Berendzen construes the reaction to the severance arrangement in a different way. "In the last few weeks, numerous students, faculty members and alumni have indicated that they would welcome me back . . . . " he wrote. "This outpouring . . . may make possible what I had sought in June."