American University president fired

October 11, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON — . American University's board of trustees dismissed its president, Benjamin Ladner, last night, accusing him of misusing more than $500,000 in university money since 2002.

After deliberating nearly eight hours, the board resolved a conflict that has roiled the campus in Northwest Washington since March, when an anonymous letter to board members said Ladner had been lavishly spending university money on himself and his wife, Nancy, for many years.

The letter sparked a controversy that angered many student and faculty groups, led to Ladner's suspension in August and split the 24-member board. On Sunday, its chairman, Leslie E. Baines, a New York City investment banker, announced her retirement, attributing her decision to "a very small, yet mean-spirited" group of trustees who sided with Ladner and fought to keep him in office.

But in announcing the board's decision, its vice chairman, Thomas A. Gottschalk, the general counsel for General Motors, said, "At the end of the meeting, the board was coming together. It's more united than it has been for some time."

Ladner declined a request for an interview.

The board's major decision was its agreement with an audit committee report that Ladner should declare an additional $398,000 in personal income for 2002 through this year for goods and services provided to him by the university.

Additionally, the audit report said Ladner should reimburse the university $125,000 for expenses that he and his wife charged to the school over the same time.

The audit committee, which was hired by the university, found that the Ladners had charged almost everything they spent to the university, including expenditures for private parties, trips abroad, limousine services, even meals alone at home.

A group of trustees who had favored keeping Ladner disputed the numbers, saying his last contract gave him wide latitude in spending. That group tried last month to negotiate a settlement that would have allowed Ladner to remain and repay the university a smaller settlement.

The Justice Department has subpoenaed documents from the school and has indicated that government lawyers might investigate the tax consequences of the Ladners' spending.

Gottschalk said trustees had discussed the issue of severance pay for Ladner but came to no conclusion, a lingering uncertainty that left concern among many students who had been calling for Ladner's ouster.

Neither Gottschalk nor two other trustees who appeared with him would answer questions about severance, leaving open the possibility that Ladner, who earns more than $600,000 annually, would receive one.

"I'm pleased with the decision of the board to dismiss Dr. Ladner," said Kyle Taylor, a senior from Anaheim, Calif., who is the student body president. "It was appropriate for the university because he needs to go. But I was disappointed they didn't resolve the severance."

Gottschalk said the whole episode, in which many trustees admitted they knew no details of Ladner's 1997 contract, caused the board to examine itself.

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