THE AMERICAN University is about to become embarrassed once again by a truly objectionable and indecent act, but the perpetrator this time is its own board of trustees. Reportedly following lengthy and heated debate a week ago, AU board members agreed to give former president Richard Berendzen a settlement gift package valued at more than $1 million. This is the same Dr. Berendzen who resigned last April after being accused of repeatedly making obscene phone calls from a private line in his university office to the home of a female day-care-center operator in Fairfax County.

Dr. Berendzen's forced resignation and all that followed -- his highly publicized treatment at a sexual disorders clinic, his subsequent arrest, guilty plea and sentencing to two 30-day suspended jail terms -- pained and appalled the university community that had supported him for 10 years. But now as an inducement to sever his remaining tenuous ties with AU, the board wants to give him an extravagant payment. While the breakdown of the package deal is unknown, it is said to include a buyout of his tenure, which he retained as a professor of physics. That part seems sensible, since tenure is a right he has earned. The package is also suppose to include money owed as part of his original contract with the university. That, again, seems fair, since the school should honor the terms of its contractual obligations. Apparently, the final -- controversial -- feature is a supposedly sizable monetary settlement, an honorarium or reward, for a well-done job. One trustee, Richard S. Cohen of Potomac, said, "He is probably entitled to one hell of a lot more than {we} are giving him."

When Dr. Berendzen quit, some trustees were angered to have learned about it through the newspapers. "We were kept completely in the dark about this," said one. This time around, however, the trustees have no excuse. If they didn't know then, they know now that Dr. Berendzen's resignation -- along with the university's humiliation -- was brought on by his improper behavior. It makes sense for the university to sever its relationship with Dr. Berendzen. In doing so, the trustees have an obligation to ensure that handling of Dr. Berendzen's termination is legally correct, ethical and fair to him and the school's own interests. But that does not warrant, and he does not deserve, the opulence of a $1 million payout.