It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Benjamin Ladner!!
Can President Ladner truly play Superman and solve AU's mounting problems?
Dr. Benjamin Ladner was sitting in Seattle one evening on a routine business trip when an official from the New York-based search firm that helped AU find candidates called to see if he would be interested in the presidency of AU. Six weeks later, he had the job.
"Moving around in academic circles, I guess I knew there was an opening," Ladner said. "The odd situation is that I found out about the job only six weeks before I (became president)."
Ladner said job offers in academia are fairly frequent, so he responded to the offer like he did most others - asked for more information, said he'd consider it and went on with his day to day life.
"It's a little surprising in that I was walking along in a job I'd been in for 13 years, and suddenly, everything about this place seemed to fit with our lives, and what we wanted to accomplish with our lives, and so we made a decision," he said. "Then we sat down and started to think, 'Gee, what have we just started?' because it all happened so quickly."
More than anything, Ladner said it was the people associated with AU - the students, faculty and staff - that attracted him to the job. He said he was also attracted to AU because of all the potential he sees here.
"I'm attracted to places that have 'creative opportunity'," Ladner said. "I saw as an opportunity the fact that there's been some instability here, and that it's a place that's ready to go, ready to do things."
He said AU has always been described from the outside as having a lot of potential, and said he thinks it is time that some of that potential is realized.
"My impression is that it's a much better place than I even had imagined," he said. "There are some absolutely first-rate people here - students, staff, people that have had wonderful experiences, and a good international mix."
"I'd never really wanted to go for the college presidency before," he said. "It really was this place, these people, and these circumstances that attracted me to the job."
Ladner worked as president of the National Faculty for the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, an educational foundation that pairs university faculty with secondary schools across the country to promote higher learning. He was a member of the organization for about 7 years before becoming its president for 13 more. He received a B.A. from Baylor University in Texas, a bachelor of divinity from Southern Seminary in Virginia and a Ph.D. from Duke University in North Carolina. Before joining the National Faculty, he taught in both the philosophy and religion departments at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
As president of the organization, Ladner was responsible for coordinating programming, developing faculty, and raising money. The organization, he said, was particularly interested in improving the quality of education in America. He said that while higher education in the United States is among the best in the world, it has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years due to rising tuition costs and intense debate over the university's role in America today.
"We have one of the grand experiments in history going on because we have a mass educated workforce, and the scale on which we've done popular education is something that no one's undertaken in a way that we have for as long as we have," Ladner said.
"So of course, there are some ups and downs. I don't think that there's any doubt that American higher education is under intense pressure to justify itself," Ladner explained.
He said that while research at universities is still superior, the education students are getting has become unclear in its focus.
"When we begin to talk about the impact individual colleges and universities have on a new generation of students and what that means, I think people are pretty skeptical about whether universities have their heads screwed on right and whether or not they're pointed in the right direction," he said.
Ladner said America had a kind of "clean pattern" in the 1950s that people were supposed to follow all their lives - a good job, mainstream life and a good family life - and that universities provided much of the intellectual leadership for this standard lifestyle.
However, as fractures have developed in society, Ladner said universities have not been as able to provide clear leadership and answers for the American public.
"We ought to be able to explain what it means to live in a diverse society," he said.
Ladner said part of the scrutiny which universities have fallen under is due to rising tuition, a problem caused by the inability of the government to provide as much funding to colleges and universities as they once did.
"The financial pressures to make up that difference that universities used to be able to count on is so significant, and that's why there's such fierce competition for students," he said. "(Tuition increases) are not because everybody's spending a lot of money. It's because the support has not been at the same level."
He said universities need to clearly define for students what education is.
"It's a difficult time right now, so I think universities have to step forward and say, 'This is what it means to be educated in our society,'" he said.
To help solve AU's own financial crises, Ladner said that one of the main things he came to AU for is to help raise money - a task he is already familiar with because of his tenure with the National Faculty.
"It's no secret - everyone knows that AU is enormously disadvantaged with regard to its endowment," he said. "One of the attractive things to me about AU is that we are able to do so much with such a small revenue base that we can count on. The creativity here is enormous."
He said he wants to set in motion a long-term program to ensure financial stability, though he has not worked out all the specifics of how to do so yet.
To attract more students, Ladner said one of his first priorities will be boosting AU's national recognition and making its achievements well-known.
"One thing that I can do is lift the image of the university," he said. "People don't know how good this place is. It's not that people think negatively (about AU), they just don't think. They'll ask 'What's going on at AU?' and someone will reply 'Well, I don't know.'"
In addition to attracting a bulk of students, Ladner said AU should be more selective and try to raise the overall academic quality of the university. He said this may mean getting money from other sources, as long as academics aren't compromised.
"I think the stronger you are academically, the more you will attract funds," he said.
He also said that he would like to enhance AU's strengths and develop them rather than try to emulate the success of other universities such as Georgetown or Harvard.
"My understanding of this place is that its aspirations are not to duplicate any of these other institutions," he said. "I don't feel Harvard is that standard for universities, that every university should be Harvard. That's just short-sighted."
Ladner said AU has its own strengths which it should focus on rather than expand too much.
"I think we have particular strengths - a particular kind of mission," he said. "We don't have the strengths to have Ph.D. programs in every possible field."
While it would be nice to have Harvard's endowment, he said, it is more important to have a balanced set of programs that reflect the needs of the students.
But what is it that sets Ladner apart from AU's past four presidents? He says there's one main difference - he's here to stay.
"I'm investing my life in this institution," Ladner said. "I hope that I fit here, and that some of the skills, some of the experience from my past will help build a solid foundation for this university."
Ladner says he has become "comfortable" in his new job, and that he is here to stay for a long time.
"I don't tend to see my life in terms of a career," he said. "I think of it as, 'Oh well, I'm done with this, I'll move on to something else.'" "I invest myself in things that mean a lot to me. It would never occur to me to think of this position as a step up."
Whether or not Ladner will actually stay like he says remains to be seen, but for the time being, he is ready to get to work.
"I've come to lead," he said. "We can be better, we are better, and people should know that. I feel like I can get my arms around this place and say 'Let's get things going."