Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, December 12, 2018

U.S. Senate summons students, trustees to forum

The staff of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee asked several past and present AU trustees, students and officials to attend a meeting on Capitol Hill March 3 as part of its investigation into financial mismanagement at nonprofits, according to those who have been invited.

The committee requested thousands of pages of documents from AU last fall after the ouster of former president Benjamin Ladner, who misused university funds for his personal expenses, according to audit reports.

"The meeting is a roundtable discussion, not a formal hearing," and it includes representatives from other nonprofits such as the American Red Cross, Interim President Neil Kerwin said. He will attend the meeting, along with Kogod School of Business Dean Richard Durand and School of Public Affairs Dean William LeoGrande.

Board Chair Gary Abramson, Vice Chair Tom Gottschalk and some of the board's attorneys plan to go as well, Abramson said.

The committee also invited Student Government President Kyle Taylor, Undergraduate Senate Speaker Chris Sgro, Student Bar Association representative Ryan Butler and Monica Malpezzi Price, head of the activist group Students for a New AU, Taylor said.

"I hope to represent the interests of students and speak honestly about our experiences with the board," Taylor said. "If students have any concerns they should email me" at, he said.

Former board chair Leslie Bains and former trustee Paul Wolff have also been invited, Bains said. Bains and Wolff split from the board last fall out of frustration with a group of trustees who tried to keep Ladner as president.

"Hopefully this meeting can be the start of a new beginning with a full airing of needed reform areas," Bains said in an e-mail.

A statement about the Senate meeting would be posted on the AU governance Web site at "since now [news of the invitations] appears to be public," Kerwin said.

Many of the documents AU handed over to the Senate have not been made public, including Ladner's performance reviews, minutes from the meetings at which the board determined his compensation, and comfort letters-statements from the board's lawyers assuring the board that Ladner's pay was reasonable.

"Many of those documents are attorney-client privileged information which our attorneys ... have advised us should not be public," Abramson said. Some of the information sent to the Senate has already been made available, he noted, such as correspondence between Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley and AU officials.

No final decisions yet

At board meetings Thursday and Friday, no changes were detailed for the board's bylaws, which will have to be altered if students are added to the board or other aspects of governance were changed. The board plans to discuss bylaws changes at its May meeting and vote on the new rules at a special session in June, Abramson said.

He and Kerwin praised last week's meetings for their inclusiveness, noting these were the first meetings since students, faculty and alumni were added to most of the board committees on which they didn't already have positions.

"We're looking at what appears to be a new era with regards to the board's interaction with the community," Kerwin said. "Certainly in the committee meetings I sat in, [representatives] were active participants, they asked questions."

Jen Smyers, director of the SG's Women's Initiative and a student representative at the Governance Committee meeting, said she was glad to be invited, but she didn't feel like a functional member of the group.

"I feel like they are only talking to students because they feel like they have to. But it's a good thing that they are talking with us," she said, as long as the committee takes students' ideas and requests seriously.

Governance Committee Chair Pamela Deese said students' input is valuable to her committee and she does take students' views into consideration.

"I've got a lot of things to do," she said, noting she is a full-time lawyer, mother and member of other boards and organizations. "I don't have time to meet with people and not take them seriously."

Taylor, who attended the Governance Committee meeting as well, said "no significant progress has been made" in committee.

Activism continues

Between 100 and 200 students signed petitions to add students to the board and to rescind Ladner's severance package, according to Price, the head of Students for a New AU. Her group displayed posters on the quad showing a timeline of the Ladner controversy and tied pi¤atas to nearby trees for students to hit on Friday.

Onlookers took interest in the timeline and approached the group with questions, she said.

"They really felt that they were just unaware" of the details of the controversy, she said. "That shocked me."

Price urged students to grab the candy that spilled out of pi¤atas shaped like lips, a pig and the number three, which represented the $3.75 million severance package Ladner received.

"Be like Ladner," Price said through her microphone, "Come on up and take all you can get"

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