Ladner fires up flames of AU tradition
Career begins with a pledge of longevity, hope
"Harvard on the Potomac" is no longer as new President Benjamin Ladner stepped into the AU public eye Wednesday at opening convocation.
In his first major address to students, faculty and staff, Ladner saluted AU's past while speaking out against trying to imitate other universities.
"You will come to understand that American is a way of life," Ladner said as he opened his Bender Arena speech. "It is a special place that differs from other universities in important respects. We are not, and do not want to be, like Harvard, the University of Michigan, Amherst, Georgetown or George Washington. We have a unique past with special traditions and, importantly for you, a special future."
Ladner, who took over AU's presidency from Interim President Elliott Milstein in July, signaled a changing view of the university from the ambitious building and reform of the 1980's to a more academic scope.
"This is an academic community that prizes discovery, understanding and teaching," Ladner said. "Everything we do is really secondary and supportive to the academic task."
AU's new president faces a challenge far more formidable than putting academics first, however: overseeing an institution with rising fiscal tensions and a five-year leadership crisis. Ever since Richard Berendzen resigned the presidency in scandal in 1990, the university has seen two interim presidents in Milstein and Milton Greenburg, and one failed attempt at long-term leadership in Joseph Duffey, who left in 1993 after just two years to take the helm of the United States Information Agency.
With a vow to give of his time and talent over "many, many years," Ladner encouraged members of the AU community to get the most out of the AU experience.
"Should you dream, sitting here at the edge of possibility, that with a little support from those around you, you could become more than you have been - begin here, now, to enact your dream, because you are in a safe community that encourages such risks," Ladner said.
An underdog during the presidential search process with the likes of former Colgate president George Langdon in the running, Ladner was chosen during the second round of the presidential search process in April. Scott Cowen, dean of the business school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was the likely candidate to be offered the position during the first round in late 1993, but dropped out to stay in Cleveland.
Accepting the position just six weeks after the search committee called to ask Ladner to put his name on the short list, Ladner and wife Nancy have taken the step Cowen would not (see related story, page B1). After a 13-year tenure at the National Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Sciences in Atlanta, Ladner found the AU presidency the right job at the right time, he said in an interview after his convocation address.
"It was a good time for us," he said of the move. "We could have been (at the National Faculty) for another 13 years. But our last daughter just graduated from Vanderbilt, and Nancy and I were free to move, no longer anchored."
Ladner's address was not a policy speech, instead revealing the new president's values through which he will base his future decisions. While the hustling Berendzen, who served from 1980 to 1990, pushed campus plans, new buildings and a "Harvard on the Potomac" approach, Ladner said his interest is more toward celebrating tradition and education. He found a theme in AU tradition, trying to parlay it into today's AU community.
"Sitting quietly on an ordinary afternoon back in the residence hall, the office, the library, we may try out the word 'glorious' - just whisper it - to see if it could possibly fit the present," he said.
Vice Provost for Student Life Maurice O'Connell, who emceed the convocation, said the address was a step in the right direction.
"It was very reassuring," O'Connell said. "It promised the stability that we've been looking for. Now we need to progress to the next step - we can ratchet AU up a notch."
He also said he enjoyed Ladner's emphasis on building a home for students, alumni, faculty and staff - a home that alumni can feel comfortable returning to years after they've left.
Student Confederation Vice President Lonnie Butts said the address was inspiring, though not completely satisfactory.
"It was very nice, but I was hoping for a little more of a step-by-step plan," she said. "The speech was pumping and inspiring."
O'Connell said student turnout at the speech, which barely filled half of Bender Arena, was far from what it should have been.
"The event was started up again for students who wanted more school spirit," O'Connell said. Convocation expired in 1944 and was revived by Greenberg in 1990.