Richard Berendzen returns to American University One-time president to teach astronomy

December 25, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Richard Berendzen had dinner recently with three faculty members from the college he presided over for 10 years, the former American University president talked about black holes, extra-terrestrial life and the cosmos -- other-worldly topics he reveled in as a one-time professor of astronomy.

But, quickly, the conversation turned to the world he knew and loved best until the spring of 1990 -- the university stratosphere from which he descended abruptly after having been discovered making obscene telephone calls.

"When we talked about campus politics, I could see a kind of flash in his eye," says Ron Sutton, a professor in the school of communications. "And then it would fade and he'd realize he's just like us."

Indeed, in an agreement crafted after explosive negotiations last winter, one-time president Berendzen is scheduled to return to the private university next month as professor Berendzen, a full-time, senior member of the physics faculty who will teach two classes of astronomy, one of modern physics.

The MIT and Harvard-trained scientist will get a salary in the $70,000 range typical for senior faculty members and, most likely, a mixed reception from a campus rocked by the embarrassing episode.

"Dick Berendzen was sick, and as far as I know he's recovered," says professor Laird B. Anderson, director of journalism programs. "We owe him the opportunity to come back and show he can teach in the classroom. As a professor, I welcome him back."

Many at the northwest Washington campus echo his sentiments, believing the university which thrived under Mr. Berendzen's leadership in the '80s, can once again benefit from his scholarly expertise.

But less forgiving are some, like freshman Katherine Ramirez, who believe the school's reputation has been "tarnished."

"Even back home, people said, 'You're going to the school whose president made prank phone calls,' " says the New Yorker. "I personally would not take a class he was teaching. He called up girls and that makes me really uncomfortable."

Mr. Berendzen, who declined to be interviewed, pleaded guilty in May 1990 to two charges of making obscene phone calls and was sentenced to two 30-day jail terms that were suspended on the condition he remain in outpatient psychological treatment.

A $4 million lawsuit by Susan Allen, the Fairfax County, Va., day-care operator to whom Mr. Berendzen made repeated calls in which he described fantasized sexual relations with children, was dismissed.

After spending 3 1/2 weeks at the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the spring of 1990, where doctors linked his aberrant behavior to sexual abuse he suffered as a child, he has remained in outpatient therapy.

"He'll be in touch with therapists all his life," says Dr. Paul McHugh, director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. "But he's not needing moment-to-moment supervision."

Although Dr. McHugh believes the former university president is "still an injured person" from the traumas of his childhood, he's confident Mr. Berendzen "will never indulge in that behavior again. He's chastened, hurt, remorseful -- and adamant that he will never do that again."

Dr. McHugh admits that returning to the university -- and in a greatly diminished position -- is likely to be difficult for Mr. Berendzen, especially if the reception is icy. "He'll always want people to trust him. That's something on his mind."

Mr. Berendzen, who came to American University in 1974 as dean of its College of Arts and Sciences, has been on paid administrative leave since the fall of 1990. Since moving out of the president's house and into an apartment in Arlington, Va., with his wife, Gail, he has worked as a space exploration consultant to NASA.

And after an initial period of what friends call "awkwardness" in which hostesses thought better of including them on dinner party lists, the couple, one-time headliners on the social circuit, are back on the scene.

Friends say Mr. Berendzen, known to be a workaholic in his previous position, appears more relaxed than ever. "To me, he has a much healthier view of life and his priorities," says Mr. Sutton. "What he wanted all along -- and what he's so excited about now -- is coming back to teach."

Last year, the campus erupted in fury when the Board of Trustees offered Mr. Berendzen a $1 million severance package. For his part, Mr. Berendzen said he'd prefer to return and teach than accept the buyout.

The three classes he will teach this semester are filled to capacity, with enrollment higher than in previous years, says a university official. Physics major Csilla Csori, registered for Mr. Berendzen's modern physics class, has no qualms about the chinks in her professor's background. "We're all adult enough to go past that," said the sophomore.

Colleagues believe his performance will determine whether the university can, indeed, get beyond his soiled reputation.

"However he overcomes that in the classroom by the force of his teaching will be a very telling point," says Mr. Anderson.

"That's all he is right now. Another professor. And that's how he'll be evaluated by his students and by his peers."

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