Topic: Professions & Institutions

American U. Teaches a Lesson
(10/23/2005) 10/25/2005

The convoluted values and dulled ethical instincts that have led to a series of corporate scandals apparently aren’t the products of U. S. corporate culture or some entrenched capitalist evil. Rather they arise from a broader and deeper absence of ethical perspective that over time becomes behaviorally linked to the very same qualitiesÂ… privilege, ability, education, opportunity, enterprise, wealth, social networks, and vigorÂ…that lead to success in our free society. People who have done great and good things begin to think that they have earned the right to use a different rule book while they continue to do them. Once they have come to this conclusion, it is a hard misconception to break. And once they start playing by their new rules, bad things begin to happen.

That we are gaining a clearer understanding of this process is the work of the trustees of American University, who are about to offer American University’s disgraced former president, Benjamin Ladner, a $4,000,000 parting gift as he forfeits his job for using the schools scarce funds to live in the fashion of Czar Nicholas, but with chauffer-driven limos rather that a golden coach. Understand: an investigation showed that Ladner had spent over $500,000 in recent years on luxuries, parties, elite travel and servants for himself and his family, over and above his generous salary. His punishment for this, besides losing his job, private chef, and all-you-can-eat supply of truffles and caviar, will include eight times the money he misused. What a great country!

But that’s not all! Ladner wants more. That’s right: he thinks he should get more money for the injustice of treating the resources of a non-profit educational institution like it was a lottery windfall. He has a lawyer ready to sue. And being greedy and self-righteous means never having to say you’re sorry.

One by one, members of the previously comatose A.U. Board of Trustees have resigned in their disgust with many of the remaining members who, in the words of the most recent evacuee, “have lost sight of the board’s mission to serve American University. Their agenda appears to be the support and defense of Dr. Ladner.”

Why, in the name of all sense and justice, would anyone choose to support a school administrator so besotted with a sense of personal privilege that he no longer can distinguish between necessary job-related expenses and non-profit looting? Part of the loyalty undoubtedly stems from the cronyism that has plagued organization boards from the moment they were devised, but the Scoreboard has concluded that there is something more basic at play here. It is the same instinct that led William Aramony, a major architect and leader of the national United Way, to use money from that charity for his own use, that told the 19th century robber barons to live like sultans while their workers starved, that corrupts elected officials like Connecticut’s former governor Rowland, political agitators like Al Sharpton, sports stars too many to mention, artists and even saints. It is the voice that says, “I deserve this. I have sacrificed and worked around the clock; I have done things that nobody else could or would do. I have special talents. I have created wealth for others and built institutions, and I will continue to do good. I am special. And only special people like me understand how valuable I am.”

The antidote to this deadly mindset resides in one of the “portal” ethical values, one that opens the door to others such as accountability, trustworthiness, caring, fairness, charity and honesty. It is humility, the one value that success threatens most. American University is teaching all of us a lesson in how important preserving humility can be.

American University Students, whose tuition paid for the ex-president’s salary and his expenses as well as the treasure the board wants to heap upon him as he leaves, are understandably outraged at the proposed deal, though many are advocating the dreaded “move on” mantra that served Bill Clinton so well, an attitude that holds that any misconduct requiring some effort to address isn’t worth the trouble.

This one is. If the remaining “special people” on the Board of Trustees insists on dangling millions in front of Ladner as a settlement rather than firing him for cause, students should urge parents, donors and benefactors to withhold sending any more money to the school until people are in place who can spend it responsibly.

Updated 10/25/2005: As seemed likely when this was written, the university’s board offered, and Ladner accepted, a four million dollar severance deal. A student movement on campus now seeks the resignations of the board members responsible for allowing A.U.’s former president to grossly misuse school funds and then approving such an generous parting arrangement. The Scoreboard applauds the students, and suggests that they propose that the trustees themselves pay for Ladner’s exit, right before they resign themselves. American University has paid too much already.

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