The princely habits of college presidents

Top educators' lavish lifestyles have been encouraged by boards seeking to boost their institutions' status. But the strategy can backfire.

October 02, 2005|By ALEC MACGILLIS | ALEC MACGILLIS,SUN REPORTER

It has become one of the recurring story lines in higher education, as inevitable as the professor-student affair: A president at an upwardly mobile university comes under fire for excessive spending of college funds on his house or travel, or other luxuries.

This time it's American University, the 11,000-student private college in Northwest Washington. President Benjamin Ladner is under scrutiny for spending about $600,000 in university funds on, among other things, a car and driver for his wife's errands, trips to Europe for his personal chef, and extravagant parties for his family, according to a university investigation. Ladner has been placed on paid leave while his lawyers and the university's trustees try to determine how much of the spending was allowed under his contract.

Left unaddressed for now have been the larger questions that the episode raises: Since when did university presidents start expecting to be treated like minor Saudi royalty? And why is it that the most tawdry tales of presidential gold-plating tend to occur at decidedly un-elite institutions?

The answer may go well beyond the schools involved in the scandals and point to a disturbing feature found again and again across American higher education today: its preoccupation with image and reputation at the expense of real learning and cost-containment. Episodes like Ladner's may be just another example of some universities doing whatever it takes to vault up a bracket in the prestige rankings - whether it's overpaying for celebrity faculty, investing in big-time sports or spending heavily on marketing their "brand."

"American higher education is part of a capitalist system, and everyone's competing against each other, and you make these [expenditures] to get what you think is going to be a payoff down the line," said George Keller, a Baltimore-based college-reinvention expert. "The question is, who's doing the cost-benefit analysis on this to see if it's really worth it?"

Precedents for AU's presidential spending scandal include:

Towson University President Mark Perkins was forced to resign in 2002 after less than a year on the job amid disclosures that he had overseen more than $1 million in college-paid upgrades for his university-owned residence , expenses that included a $25,000 plasma-screen television and an $80,000 elevator. Perkins also commissioned a $25,000 gold medallion to wear at his inauguration.

University of New Orleans Chancellor Gregory O'Brien resigned in 2003 amid revelations that he had spent $50,000 in university foundation money on his daughters' weddings. It was later disclosed that he had also used foundation funds to pay for trips with his wife to Europe and Asia, tickets to a Cher concert, and dues for a Mardi Gras club, known as a krewe.

The president of Adelphi University in Long Island, N.Y., Peter Diamandopoulos, was ousted in 1997 amid an uproar over his salary and benefits, which totaled more than $800,000. The small college also bought him a $1.3 million Manhattan apartment.

In the case of Ladner, 63, who has led American since 1994 and whose annual compensation totals $800,000, spending under scrutiny includes a $22,345, first-class flight to Nigeria, where the university has an affiliate campus; multiday layovers in top London, Paris and Rome hotels by him and his wife on the way back from university-related trips; a waterfall for his back yard; salaries for a chef, social secretary and chauffeur who investigators say spent much of their time providing personal services unrelated to their formal duties; a $5,274 luncheon that Ladner's wife held for a garden club; wine purchases for personal use that investigators say totalled more than $43,000 over three years, or more than $40 per bottle; $85,000 in food purchases for Ladner and his wife over three years; and family parties including a 13-course, $1,382 engagement dinner for Ladner's son and his fiancee and a birthday party for Ladner that, according to The Washington Post, featured pan-seared foie gras, BeauSoleil oyster, sabayon and caviar, and white truffle risotto. All this at a school with a relatively small endowment where the operating budget is paid for almost entirely by tuition.

It is easy to lampoon such scandals as bizarre sagas of individual excess, the acts of latter-day Louis XIVs who have figured out how to game the system. But there is a common thread that suggests another dynamic is also at work. All four presidents were employed by workmanlike institutions striving to raise their reputation, and all four were encouraged by trustees to lead a life of luxury, in hopes that this would help project a positive image for the institution. If the presidents crossed the line, their trustees acted as enablers in nudging them near it.

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