Students banged on doors, clapped and shouted, "Whose money? Our money!" as American University trustees met privately yesterday to discuss the future of the school.
The day after a contentious open forum with trustees, some students were so angry they tried to barge into the board meeting, part of an escalating campaign to demand resignations and a takeover by a control board.
They couldn't get past a cluster of administrators and campus police blocking both doors to the board room, where the trustees who agreed to give ousted president Benjamin Ladner a $3.75 million severance package were meeting to talk about board reforms, the upcoming presidential search and the need to be more inclusive of the campus community.
But after the other trustees slipped out, Vice Chairman Thomas A. Gottschalk let the protesters come in, have a seat at the table and tell him why they don't trust the board.
It's become a familiar message. Ladner lost the presidency last month after an investigation questioned hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal and travel expenses for him and his wife over the past three years. The severance package cut his ties to the private university in Northwest Washington but hardly ended the debate on campus: Deans, students and faculty groups condemned the deal and said they had lost confidence in the board.
Some petitioned Congress, some are demanding resignations, some are considering lawsuits. The Senate Finance Committee has demanded documents and asked that the three-year audit be expanded to the entire 11 years of Ladner's tenure.
Gottschalk told students that the trustees had agreed not to hurry into a presidential search until they had resolved their own governance issues. He also said they took very seriously demands for transparency and accountability and were working on ways to improve.
"We've got to open the doors," he said.
On Thursday night, the campus had an unusual -- perhaps unprecedented -- exchange between six trustees and hundreds of angry students, professors and alumni. At times like a strange and public therapy session, the two-hour forum let the campus vent to board members and let trustees see the depth of emotion at AU.
A student talking about the decision to cut the tennis teams almost started to cry, his voice shaking as he asked how the school could pay so much money to a disgraced president but not afford a small program that meant so much. A law school alumnus shouted that he hoped they all got sued. Students scoffed at some answers or laughed bitterly.
Trustees were emotional, too; the forum began with introductions and the reasons they volunteer their time to American. Matthew S. Pittinsky said he met his wife, his business partner and the mentor who signed his marriage certificate at AU; Jack C. Cassell said he's "been running around campus 50 years," with a father who was an administrator there and died in one of the university's halls.
And trustee David M. Carmen described an agonizing summer and fall during which all sorts of things they thought they knew about the university, about a president they admired and about colleagues on the board suddenly were called into question. They didn't know who knew what, how much Ladner was actually paid or how the investigation was going, he said.
"This was the first time the board realized that all the ground we were standing on was clay," he said.
Carmen said American could move forward and become a national model for good governance; as the climate changes for nonprofit organizations, he said, AU could lead the way.
Again and again, those in the room told the trustees they don't trust them to make those changes. In the first question, graduate student Monica Price listed all the groups that had protested the board's decisions and asked, to cheers and sustained applause: "What is your planned action in response to these no-confidence resolutions?"
Trustee John R. Schol, bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, said he invites the campus community to hold the board accountable for what happens in the future.
Pamela M. Deese said the trustees already had begun talking about reforming the board. "Today we had our first governance committee meeting . . . and we set a timeline" and will ensure that it's an inclusive process, she said.
But that shocked some students, who said they had been told they could be a part of those meetings -- and had no idea the process had started without them.
Some thanked the trustees for coming and said the session was helpful.
"You got a sense that they're really committed to the university," said Prof. John M. Richardson Jr. "I don't think they changed their point of view much, but they certainly heard things -- and were aware of feelings on campus -- in a way that would have been unimaginable six weeks ago."
But many of the students left madder than when they arrived.
"They spent more time blaming other people for the bad things they've done than fixing them," law student Ryan Butler said.
"We're tired of the spin," said Matt Barkan.
Staff writer Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.