When Benjamin Ladner came to American University in 1994, he told the crowd assembled for his inaugural address that the school had reached a pivotal moment in its history.
He came to a university in turmoil, a place trying to shake off a second-choice, party-school image, a sex scandal and a series of short-term presidents.
"I came to stay," Ladner said that day in November, trustees and administrators smiling behind him, according to newspaper accounts. "I'm not going."
Tomorrow, the board of trustees meets to consider the results of an investigation into his and his wife's spending and to decide whether he will stay at AU. While board members will look at documents from auditors and lawyers, there's another important subtext to their debate: Ladner's impact on the campus, and where he has led the university, up to this pivotal moment.
Ladner and his supporters point to his accomplishments: a school now better known for its public service and global focus, an endowment that has grown dramatically, allowing renovations and new buildings to rise on campus, and the strongest freshman class it has had.
His critics say all of that is outweighed by a student protest, a no-confidence vote by the Faculty Senate, a Department of Justice investigation and errors in judgment -- such as hosting an elaborate, 13-course family engagement dinner paid by the university, regardless of his offer to repay the cost. Others say the successes of his tenure are best understood in the context of nationwide trends in student achievement and larger donations, and of faculty and student efforts.
Ladner has brought stability -- he stayed, as he told the AU community he would -- and a clear vision for the private university's future, often eloquently conveyed to donors, faculty, students. He hasn't always brought peace.
Abbey Joel Butler, a former trustee, was on the search committee and remembers meeting Ladner. "He was extraordinary," Butler said. "Great ratings from his previous position. He was a leader."
When Ladner arrived, the endowment was $29 million, and only 6 percent of alumni donated to the private university in Northwest Washington. Freshmen had an average grade point of 3.2 and SAT scores of 1133. The school received 4,600 applications. Tuition was about $16,000.
His salary was $225,000.
Some students got mad right away. "In his first budget, he raised tuition by 6 percent," said Adam Eidinger, who was a student then, paying for school himself. He and his friends started asking why money was being spent on redecorating the new house AU bought for Ladner and on a new logo for the school.
"He was into image," Eidinger said, "into selling the idea of the school."
But Ladner's supporters said he was doing what AU needed: building its image, spreading the word; convincing donors, professors and prospective students that the school was on the rise.
In 1997, then-board Chairman William I. Jacobs signed a new contract with Ladner, with more generous terms, pleased with the success and stability Ladner had brought.
Former trustee Robert Pence, who has given well over $2 million to the school, said he questioned the Ladners' spending as early as 1996. "Near the end of my term I was unceremoniously removed from the audit committee because, I think, I was asking too many questions," he wrote to the board last week.
He enclosed a letter he sent Jacobs in 1998 that said Ladner should go: "If we won't fire the president, we should at least take away his credit card, require him to stay on this campus and run the university in a dignified and fair manner."
But other trustees continued to be delighted with Ladner, giving him raises and incentives to keep him at AU. One finance committee member said he was doing such a superior job, officials weren't worried about whether he was taking a limousine or a cab in London.
In 2001, Ladner gave a speech laying out 15 goals, including fundraising, reducing the number of graduate programs and increasing their quality, improving students' experience and emphasizing the school's mission as "a Washington-based, global university."
It was well received. "Some strategic plans are just words, but this was more," said former trustee Pete Smith. It laid out where Ladner wanted to go and provided a path.
Ladner continued to emphasize overseas initiatives, forging more partnerships with international schools, more than doubling the number of students studying abroad.
Some students and professors grumbled about a "Ben Ladner sighting" if he appeared on campus.
In 2003, the university launched a $200 million fundraising campaign, which is about halfway to its goal.
Now the endowment stands at $262 million, according to figures provided by David E. Taylor, Ladner's chief of staff. Much of the growth comes from a decision to move funds from the operating budget -- 2 percent a year, or $6.5 million last year -- into the endowment and from very high returns on the investments.
The total return has averaged almost 12 percent annually for the past decade, Taylor said. In fiscal 2004, it was 22 percent; this year, 15 percent.
The endowment without the operating budget funds has gone up more gradually over the years.
AU ranks 195th in the market value of its endowment assets out of 741 institutions, according to a study this year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Georgetown and George Washington universities rank in the 70s.
The school is still almost entirely dependent on students for its operating revenue.
Still, Ladner has succeeded at persuading people to invest in his vision for AU. "He raised millions of dollars that helped the university, millions," said Cyrus Katzen, who said he has given $32 million to the university and is the largest single donor; his and his wife's names are on the signature new arts center.
Jordan Landry, a senior, said the president's leadership is such that improvements he brought are visible all the time: "Just walking around on campus, it's much more pleasant. . . . Buildings are being renovated constantly so they're nicer -- I think that's a direct result of Dr. Ladner's ability to fundraise for the university and make improvements."
AU forged partnerships with new campuses in the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria, continuing to seize opportunities in the growing market abroad for higher education.
Admission has become more competitive. Entering freshmen now have an average grade point of 3.5 and combined SAT scores of 1285, and AU gets more than 13,000 applications, according to Ladner's attorneys.
That increased selectivity is not unique to AU, said Shirley Levin, an educational consultant. "It's nationwide." A big population bubble means more students applying to college than ever, she said.
And, she said, "a 3.5 isn't what a 3.5 used to be. I think there has been some really dramatic grade inflation around the country."
Tuition is nearly $28,000 this year, and financial aid has risen significantly.
Last year, for the first time, the board moved to limit Ladner's compensation, which had vaulted to more than $800,000 in 2004 -- not because it wasn't pleased with his performance, but because as a nonprofit institution, the school must avoid excessive compensation to keep its tax-exempt status.
This spring, an anonymous letter arrived questioning the Ladners' spending, and trustees asked auditors to check into it. After months of work, lawyers hired by the board's executive committee concluded that the Ladners should reimburse AU more than $115,000, sources said, and pay taxes on more than $350,000 of additional income over the three years in question.
Ladner's attorneys have argued that his spending is justified by his 1997 contract but said that he is willing to pay some $21,000 back and add $32,000 to his taxable income.
Tomorrow, board members will consider the findings, the past and the future of the university and whether Ladner has to go.