Of the many arguments floated by Benjamin Ladner in his campaign to be restored to the presidency of American University, none was more striking than the suggestion he made in this newspaper that "I've become a lightning rod because I've always been a force for change" on campus.
Now, a university president who is compensated $800,000 a year, sleeps in a university-provided mansion, travels first-class all over the world, rarely appears on campus, and who has a chauffeur, maid, social secretary, French chef and a lucrative secret contract may be a lot of things, but a force for change is not one that leaps to mind.
I work with people at AU who are real forces for change. For example, at the university's Washington College of Law, where I teach and which I know best, I have colleagues and students who have prosecuted war criminals, helped to free innocent people on death row, helped the people of Kosovo write a constitution and defended the rights of prisoners facing sexual abuse. They have also protected the public's right to fair use of intellectual property, assisted women facing domestic violence in obtaining court orders against their abusers, provided tax advice to low-income workers, helped small businesses and community nonprofits get incorporated and brought a suit against Cuba over the summary execution of three of its citizens.
Indeed, over the last few months, as the public feasted on reports of Ladner's mouth-watering 13-course dinner menu (part of one course in honor of his son's engagement: "Five Peppercorn Encrusted Baja Coast Scallop, Sesame Seaweed Salad & Orange Essence Oil), our educational and service missions continued to thrive, albeit in a way overshadowed by the president's whining and dining.
With our partners at Howard University School of Law, this fall we sent 60 students into public high schools in the District and Montgomery County to teach a yearlong "constitutional literacy" course. We sponsored important conferences on international commercial arbitration, environmental law, the campaign finance cases before the Supreme Court this term, and the Rwanda and Yugoslavia war crimes tribunals. The school also became among the first in America to invite displaced Tulane and Loyola university students to enroll for a semester, tuition-free, after Hurricane Katrina.
The American University that I know has been flourishing -- in spite of, not because of, its former president's priorities. Ladner has cited the university's rise in every official ranking as justification for his compensation package and lavish perks. Yet that rise was the work of thousands of people here who are passionate about education, scholarship and the public service mission of the university.
Ladner is not the first president to leave AU under a cloud. A colleague dropped by the other day to express his fear that the "curse of the presidents" would never be lifted. In 1994, Ladner became AU's fourth president in five years; one of those left after being caught making obscene phone calls. My colleague asked, "What do we get next? A narco-trafficker?"
For all of our dark humor and collective embarrassment, there is a serious question in this: Is there something wrong with the way the school's trustees are governing our university? Perhaps our board of trustees, whose members are drawn almost entirely from the ranks of big business, does not fully appreciate how a college president differs from a corporate CEO. The trustees were, it seems, swayed by Ladner's claims that his salary and perks were commensurate with the many-fold increase in the university's endowment and the money he raised for the beautiful new Katzen Arts Center.
But college presidents are supposed to remain committed to the teaching and ethical mission of the university while they are raising money. They cannot expect to work on a percentage basis like managers of a hedge fund. If that is the prize that motivates them, they should go to Wall Street. As Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University here in the District, observed, alumni who give their hard-earned wealth to a university do not want the president to waste the money on himself. Many wealthy donors whose values are intact gag at crass displays intended to entice them.
When Ladner complained in an interview in October that he is a victim of the new Sarbanes-Oxley era of accountability, he paid an unwitting compliment to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who was the law school commencement speaker this year. If the law designed to bolster responsibility in corporate boardrooms can force university trustees to take their fiduciary duties seriously, then the legislation is reminding people in the nonprofit domain of their ethical obligations. As Ladner himself wrote in a 1999 Post opinion piece about public service and private life at the time of President Bill Clinton's impeachment, "to become a public person by assuming a public office is to submit willingly to the ethical 'overtones' of the office."
Alas, at this point, the AU board stands by the bloated "settlement" package it handed to Ladner. Since when do employees on the verge of dismissal "for cause" get the option of a multimillion-dollar sendoff? Ladner's empty threats of suing for the money were ludicrous. Would he really want to go before a jury of his peers in D.C. Superior Court and explain why a man paid $800,000 a year also enjoyed services and goods worth more than $600,000 beyond his contract perks over a three-year period? Would he really want to be deposed on all 11 years of his spending and could he convince a D.C. jury that the university was wrong to fire him?
The rise of vice among nonprofits is not unique to us, as anyone who recalls recent dubious spending practices at Stanford and Adelphi universities and piggish salaries at the United Way knows. On Oct. 27, Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has been investigating financial abuses in the nonprofit world, sent a letter to the acting chairman of the AU board, which he suggested could be a "poster child" for the need for reform in that world.
And he demanded answers to the same questions we have all been asking. How much money did Ladner actually take from our university and what are the tax implications? What are the plans to audit the first eight years of the Ladner presidency? What are the board's plans to guarantee accountability and transparency in the future?
The same liberal academics who ordinarily would resist federal meddling in university affairs are welcoming Grassley's questions. If Congress, which first chartered our university back in 1893, could help us do one thing now, it would be to close the incredible gulf between the board of trustees and the rest of the university. A little representative democracy would force upon us a kind of thoughtfulness and deliberation that has been missing.
The revolt against the Ladner presidency has irrevocably changed the way business will be done on our campus. A campuswide civil society has come alive. While the trustees were polarized and paralyzed, the deans and faculties of the five colleges banded together to condemn Ladner's extravagance. Across campus, we voted "no confidence" in his leadership. The Faculty Senate acted with vigor, as did alumni.
With wit and energy, the student body petitioned, protested and demanded not only Ladner's departure but institutional accountability and democracy on the board. My three favorite signs on the quad were: "White Truffle & Porcini Egg Custard & American Sturgeon Caviar for You/ Ramen Noodles for Me," "Ladner stole my bike" (a loan-strapped student explained that he couldn't afford to buy one) and the lovely "French Chef, Non/French Revolution, Oui."
We are not out of the woods yet. Four trustees who criticized the "pro-Ladner" faction for the $3.8 million parachute tossed to the disgraced president on his way out have resigned. These dissident trustees pointed out that this send-off could have paid the annual salaries of three dozen faculty members, 200 full tuition scholarships or 10 full scholarships in perpetuity.
When I told Maria, the woman who cleans my office (and helps me with my Spanish), about Ladner's farewell jackpot, she just laughed. She has worked for one of AU's cleaning contractors for 14 years. She started earning $5.50 an hour in 1991 and today earns about $11 an hour. I estimate that she makes just under $23,000 a year, or what our former president once spent on a first-class airplane ticket. For her to earn what Ladner just picked up, she would have to continue as a janitor here for the next 165 years. On campus, too, as Voltaire put it, "the comfort of the rich depends on abundant supply of the poor." Could we hope to find a college president who wants to challenge the startling inequalities of American life rather than take advantage of them?
The message of Ladner's presidency was "L'Universite, c'est moi." The point of the opposition has been, "L'Universite, c'est nous." In this sense, the campus rebellion provoked by the Ladners' decadence has been cathartic and promising. We have learned the price of passivity.
As Ben Franklin used to say: "If you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you." The people who love American University as a community of learning and social engagement have risen up against our culture of closed governance. There is no going back now.
Jamin Raskin is a professor of constitutional law at American University's Washington College of Law and director of its Program on Law and Government. He is former chairman of Maryland's Higher Education Labor Relations Board.