In the matter of Benjamin Ladner, the American University president who believes in spending other people's money for a good $5,000 lunch, it may be instructive to listen to the wisdom of Benjamin Ladner, president of American University:

"The purveyors of public images in our culture would have you believe . . . that enough of the right mix of entertainment, expensive possessions and an upwardly mobile status are sufficient to keep you at least close to the edges of the center of your life."

In his commencement address last spring, Ladner, the school's $800,000-a-year chief, now suspended, warned that such worldly trappings are fool's gold. What's real is a mother's love and the rock of faith.

Ladner, who spent AU money on chauffeurs and a trip to Nigeria while professors' pay lags behind the national average, continued: "In response to some future event, or challenge, or loss, or shattered dream, you may perhaps come to yourself, and find that you are, and may have been for some time, off center. When those moments come . . . how do you find your way home?"

If you're Ben Ladner, that's easy: Get a first-class ticket and bill the university. But if you're a mere mortal, the president has other advice: "You can always find home again when you find other people. . . . Finding your way back to the center of yourself always passes through the way you respond to the world's needs. You will recognize this when you give yourself away instead of getting only for yourself."

Let's sing together, shall we? "People, people who need people, are the luckiest . . . " Oh, never mind. Instead, kids, let's visit one of Ben Ladner's birthday dinners, courtesy of your tuition dollars. Let's start with a Chedabucto Oyster Martini and Beluga Caviar. Oh, it's a dry campus, huh? Would you prefer Spring Chive Custard? Oops, the custard is from the president's wife's birthday bash, also paid for by AU. Either way, be sure to save room for Braised Veal Cheek and White Truffle Risotto with rabbit ragu.

The kids on the AU campus yesterday couldn't quite find the Hand Shucked Maine Scallop on the menu in TDR, the main dining hall. But don't fret, Mr. President, the students understand that times are tough.

"It's not always like this," Rebecca Joseph, a freshman from Washington state, assured me. "It's just that the dishwashers broke, so we're using styrofoam plates and the menu's short. And the stoves in the dorm don't work. So we get pizza . . . "

"While he gets caviar," added freshman William French from Anaheim, Calif. "They should discharge him, or failing that, they should make him eat here."

Some students have already heard from their parents, who fork over $41,000 a year in tuition and fees. The reaction from back home has been, um, not what they teach in AU's seminars on tolerance and civility.

"For his salary, 20 students could go here," said Joseph, who was applying for work at the student grocery. The job, with a scholarship, loans and a big stretch by her family, might get her through four years.

Only one of 15 students I spoke to had ever seen Ladner, who was suspended last month while American's trustees look into his spending on, as he might put it, "entertainment, expensive possessions and an upwardly mobile status."

Pretty much all students knew about Ladner was how he spends his money. His compensation shot up from $292,000 in 1997 to $614,000 in 2003 and is now more than $800,000.

A couple of other local college presidents share that rarefied air but approach their jobs differently. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg of George Washington University, for example, is a familiar presence on his campus, and you're more likely to see him chow down at Full Kee in Chinatown -- where it'd be tough to spend $13 on a meal -- than at one of Ladner's 13-course dinners. Trinity College's Patricia McGuire somehow manages to pay for her own house and car, though she earned but $182,000 in 2003.

The walls are closing in on Ladner, but he appears not to notice. He may wish to heed his own warning from last spring: "It would be wonderful if you could count on living the rest of your life this way -- always right in the big middle of the flow of your dreams and expectations. . . . But when they start to recede, it can be difficult to find your way back to the center of when you felt most alive and most yourself."