Before the audit, before the no-confidence votes, before trustees removed him as president of American University, Benjamin Ladner taught ethics.
That's the heart of his now contradictory story: He's a philosopher, known for the eloquence of his speeches, with more than a little Southern preacher in him. His friends describe him as an honorable, charismatic leader. But his critics -- who have been growing in number since an investigation found that the Ladners spent university money on foie gras, limousines, French wine and family parties -- say he's unethical, manipulative and imperious.
Between praise and condemnation, there seems to be little middle ground. Even after voting to dismiss him Oct. 10, some members of the university's Board of Trustees said they still don't agree on who he is or what he did. They continue to argue as they decide whether he should get a hefty severance package, stay on as the private university's most highly paid professor, or walk away with nothing.
Ladner and his wife, Nancy, declined to comment for this story. But in an interview last month, as he talked about the investigation and the generous terms of his disputed contract, he reminded reporters that morality always is set in context. "I'm a philosopher," he said. "It's a hard thing for me to step forward and say, 'I'm moral.'
"I do feel I've done what I've done with intentional integrity," he said, "within the context of the guidelines."
The Boy From Alabama
One thing people agree on is his past.
People looked up to Benny Ladner when he was growing up in Mobile, Ala., in the 1940s and '50s. His family was active in the church, and he was headed for seminary. He was a high school all-American basketball player, earned good grades, won oratory awards. He dated Nancy Bullard, a cheerleader at his big public high school.
After graduating from Baylor University and Southern Seminary, he chose academics over the ministry: He earned a doctorate in religion at Duke University.
He married, had two sons and taught philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the 1970s. His creative, Socratic teaching style won him awards. He took a class hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Once, a former colleague said, he walked into a classroom in a gorilla suit.
His family lived on 18 acres in the North Carolina countryside with four horses, a bunch of dogs, a tractor, a big garden and students always drifting in and out of the house talking about philosophy, said his oldest son, David Ladner.
In the early 1980s, Benjamin Ladner became president of the National Faculty and moved to Atlanta. "Ben provided wonderful leadership" at that organization, which encourages professional growth among teachers, said Michael Mahoney, a Princeton University professor and chairman of the National Faculty's Board of Trustees.
He ran into Nancy Bullard again, back in Mobile, both divorced with two children, and they began dating. They married in 1982.
Friends in Atlanta remember a couple busy with their kids and his work, active in the Episcopal Church (he was sometimes asked to speak to the congregation). "Everyone just marveled at his gifts for speaking and educating," said Joan Cates, a former neighbor.
He has filled out since his basketball days, with some of the looks and manner of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, a politician's ease and a deep, rich voice that still hints of Alabama. Nancy Ladner is a bubbly blond Southern lady, friends said.
It's at AU, where the couple moved in 1994 when he took the job as president, that the stories begin to split.
A Promising Start
Ladner was emotional at his inauguration, surrounded by family and friends, looking out over the crowd, which greeted him warmly.
Faculty, students and trustees alike were glad to have a leader with a clear vision for the future of the school; before Ladner came, AU had been in turmoil for years after one president admitted making obscene phone calls and others quickly came and went.
But it wasn't long before some people were taking shots. Rather than living in the president's house on the campus, the Ladners moved into another one the university bought nearby. They added a waterfall and a small pond full of koi to the back yard and upgraded from a cook who served home-style food to a chef who could make 100 canapes for a university event or flounder stuffed with seafood mousse for the two of them.
Sometimes students protested, saying they were wasting tuition and classroom dollars -- or put soap in the waterfall, filling the back yard with bubbles.
Gina Maria Schulz avoided going on the campus when she worked at the president's house in the late 1990s because people would always ask her if the Ladners were living high on the hog, she said. "People on campus were so mean, and I just thought, 'You don't know the real Ladners.' "
She enjoyed her job -- "Personal Assistant to the First Lady," it said on her cards -- even though sometimes she and housekeeper Menei Man would roll their eyes at the rules. They always had to sort through all the clothes, she said, to figure out whether he had worn a tuxedo shirt at a wedding or a university event, to determine whether the bill was paid by AU or the Ladners. When Nancy Ladner wanted to take the housekeeper to their home on Gibson Island in the Chesapeake Bay, her husband said that wasn't appropriate, Schulz said.
"He was the most ethical man I ever met," Schulz said.
Soon after Schulz left, Katya Thomas, now a Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, Congo, came to work there. She quit after a few months, she said, because the Ladners made no effort to separate personal from university expenses and she couldn't be a part of that. Besides, she said, "Dr. Ladner had a hot temper and treated me like his servant."
They are people with exacting demands for anything from Christmas lights to flowers to how dress shirts and boxer shorts should be ironed, several staff members said. Daniel Traster, a chef there in 1998, learned to make cheese sticks just so, after about 20 tries.
Two chauffeurs, both of whom were fired, said they would get in trouble if they didn't open the door of the black Infiniti for the couple even at home in the garage.
But Judy Elliott, a friend from Atlanta, said, "I've never seen that side of them."
The Eloquent Philosopher
David Ladner said his father is extremely patient. He sees it most vividly in the way his father takes care of his younger brother Mark, who is autistic and retarded. Others said the same thing, admiring how he talks to his disabled son and takes him on long walks.
Many describe the Ladners as good friends as well as loving parents. Elliott thinks of Ben Ladner turning her baseball hat around, out on his boat one day, and grinning at her, just like a big brother.
Supporters said he was a hardworking and eloquent leader for the school, dedicated to public service with a global outlook.
"He befriends artists and intellectuals wherever he goes," said Tom Bertrand, who met Ladner through the National Faculty.
Trustees praised Ladner year after year and gave him generous raises, hoping to keep him.
Still, there were people at AU asking questions.
Some professors and students said the president effectively walled himself off from the campus, rarely meeting with deans or getting to know faculty.
Ladner's longtime executive assistant, Margaret H. Clemmer, said in a statement to lawyers, "Dr. Ladner's schedule was maintained with strict confidentiality at his direction," with only his wife, Clemmer and her assistant allowed to access it. That made it difficult for even senior administrators to get things done, Clemmer said.
Jeffrey A. Madden, a chauffeur for the Ladners who was fired, said he remembers the chef preparing coolers full of salmon and steaks for a get-together for a few of Nancy Ladner's college friends on Gibson Island. The university car was so packed with coolers and cases of wine that he could hardly use the rearview mirror as he drove the supplies there, he said.
"I worked for the university," he said, with a $40,000 salary. "But I felt like their personal little slave boy."
The Beginning of the End
This spring, an anonymous letter to trustees triggered an audit of the Ladners' recent personal and travel expenses. His attorneys have responded that the investigation was unfair and exaggerated. They emphasized that, although he would be willing to pay some back, the Ladners were entitled by his contract to spend virtually everything that they did. The board voted Oct. 10 that the Ladners should reimburse AU $125,000 and add $398,000 to their taxable income for the past three years.
He has lost friends over his insistence that what he did was justified. Two trustees who had been close with the Ladners, George J. Collins and Paul M. Wolff, have become two of his most vocal critics. Wolff, who resigned from the board, said recently that he had affection for Ladner but believed his moral compass had lost its bearings.
The president also lost support on the campus. Many said that for all of Ladner's eloquence, he was deaf to how his legal arguments would sound to professors and students on financial aid. Exactly what he owes is less relevant than "that he thought that all of this was his due," said professor Lenny Steinhorn. "That's where the moral and ethical aspects of his leadership come in."
"We all see through our own filters," Elliott said. But in decades of friendship, the Ladners "have never disillusioned me."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.