American University President Benjamin Ladner was suspended yesterday pending the outcome of an audit of his personal and travel expenses, the university announced.
In a brief statement last night, Leslie E. Bains, chair of the university's board of trustees, said Ladner, 63, had been placed on administrative leave. Cornelius M. Kerwin, the university's provost, will become interim president.
"Earlier this month it was announced that the board of trustees authorized a review of the personal and travel expenses in one department," Bains said in the statement. "That review continues using outside counsel and outside auditors."
David E. Taylor, Ladner's chief of staff, said that he wasn't sure what triggered the suspension but that the board had determined that "this would be the best thing for now." Officials did not know how long the investigation will last. Ladner will be paid during the suspension, authorities said.
Taylor characterized the probe as an internal matter and said no law enforcement agencies were involved.
Last month, the university's board released a statement saying the probe was triggered by an anonymous letter received by several board members.
The letter, similar to one received by The Washington Post, alleged expense account violations by Ladner and his wife, Nancy Bullard Ladner, a source said.
According to the letter received by The Post, over a five-year period, the Ladners charged the university for their son's engagement party, presents for their children, a personal chef, vacations in Europe, maintenance of a residence in Maryland and wine that cost as much as $100 a bottle. According to Internal Revenue Service records, his base salary was $633,000 for 2003-04.
In recent weeks, several AU professors have questioned what they say is a lack of oversight of spending by the administration. Although college presidents often are questioned about their spending, it is unusual for a private university to audit a president -- and for news of an audit to become public.
Taylor said he did not expect Ladner's suspension to harm the university. Students are returning to campus this week, and classes start Monday.
"The fact is, the board is taking it seriously," he said of the investigation. "They take their oversight role seriously."
University trustees declined to comment on the suspension, as did a dean who was contacted last night. Some students received the news in an e-mail last night from the university.
Edward R. Carr, a trustee from Potomac, said that any comment from the board must come from Bains, the group's chair, and that she was out of town on vacation.
"We have full confidence that Dr. Kerwin and the experienced and talented cabinet and senior management in place at American University will carry out their duties in as excellent a manner as they always have," Bains said in the statement.
Some students reached by telephone last night said they would reserve judgment until more information surfaces.
"We're really not going to comment at this time. No one in the student government is," said Joe Vidulich, secretary of the AU student government.
Referring to Ladner, Vidulich added: "We're not going to jump to any conclusions. He's done a lot of good for this university over the past few years."
Vidulich said Ladner, who became university president in 1994, helped to improve the school's prestige and its rankings in a recent U.S. News and World Report survey of colleges and universities. He said Ladner also helped guide the opening this summer of an arts center on the school's upper Northwest Washington campus.
Megan Slack, editor in chief of the campus newspaper, the Eagle, said that word of the probe this month seemed to have little effect among students and professors who were around campus this summer. The university has about 11,000 students, evenly split between undergraduates and professional and graduate students.
"It's not a shocking reaction from anyone," Slack said. "He's helping the school, and I think those things are positive. But there has always been this underlying feeling [that] he makes a lot of money, and I think that makes most people skeptical."
Ladner, who had been an administrator of a national association of university professors and a college professor in North Carolina, took the reins at AU at a time when the school had experienced a stretch of instability, with five leaders in less than five years. Most notoriously, Richard E. Berendzen, who had dreamed of creating a "Harvard on the Potomac," resigned as president in April 1990 and later admitted to placing obscene calls from his office.
Ladner, who has taught philosophy and religion while president of AU, is credited with improving the school's academic standards and fundraising.
His biography on the university Web site said his "academic diplomacy" initiatives helped nurture understanding and trust between nations "when political strategies have stalled or failed" and mentioned North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and Iran, among other countries.
Mary Crom, a resident adviser in an AU dormitory, said last night that she remained confident that Ladner's suspension will have little effect on the value of her degree or the overall operations of the school.
"He doesn't have a huge hand in the day-to-day operations," she said. "The professors are still here. . . . Freshman week is still going on. We're still going to have convocation on Friday."
Staff writers Susan Kinzie and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.