AU president faces possible termination

With his reputation already in tatters, American University President Benjamin Ladner will soon learn if embezzlement charges against him will end his career at the Washington, D.C. school.

The university’s board of trustees will meet Oct. 10, following a now month-long investigation into allegations that Ladner used university funds to pay for personal expenses.

Based on their review, the trustees will make a final decision on Ladner’s future with the school.

Ladner was suspended from his duties with pay in late August – just days before the start of the fall semester – when the university announced an audit of his personal and travel expenses. The university’s provost, Cornelius Kerwin, has served in his place since that time.

Questions about the president’s spending first arose in July, when an anonymous letter was sent to several members of American University’s board of trustees suggesting that Ladner and his wife had misused school funds.

The allegations against Ladner have prompted an outcry on the university’s campus. Last week, five of the university’s six schools issued votes of no confidence in the president, and the sixth was in the process of considering a similar statement.

In spite of qualms about how the investigation has been handled, a majority of the school’s trustees no longer believe Ladner can effectively lead the university, according to sources cited in the Washington Post last Friday.

Students have also joined the fray. The general assembly of the university’s student government passed a resolution on Sunday demanding that Ladner resign, and students have organized several campus rallies against the president.

Since being suspended, Ladner has denied the allegations. In spite of some accounting errors, most of his actions being investigated are permitted under his contract, he said. He has said repeatedly that he does not plan to resign.

Ladner’s opponents are now aiming to withhold the full year’s salary and benefits he would receive as severance pay if he were fired under his current contract. The severance pay would be voided if Ladner is found to have engaged in “fraud or dishonesty.”

In an online conversation Monday moderated by washingtonpost.com board member Paul M. Wolf, Wolf said it is likely Ladner could be removed without being given severance pay.

“I believe very strongly that we can choose to discharge him without any golden parachute and without any further loss of valuable university funds,” Wolf said. “I support the resolution of the business school asking the trustees to provide no golden parachute.”

Wolf said that while the cost of the investigation – which is said to be approaching $1 million – is regrettable, the board was left with no choice but to look into the matter fully once the allegations surfaced.

“After we received the whistle blower letter, we could not sweep it under the rug. We had to investigate,” Wolf said. “Such investigations are expensive, especially when the subject, Mr. Ladner, made it increasingly difficult.”

In response to a reader’s question about how the ongoing scandal would affect American University’s reputation, Wolf said it is imperative that the situation be resolved soon to avoid any further harm to the school’s prestige.

“I think the best way to deal with the fallout is to as quickly as possible remove Dr. Ladner, either by his own resignation or by board action,” Wolf said, adding that “the damage to American University will be long term only if we keep President Ladner.”

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