Monday, October 10, 2005

Reflections on the Controversy Surrounding Dr. Ladner

Many AU student friends say they look to me for straight talk on matters relating to University life – especially things affecting their lives.. Probably they wonder why I did not speak out more publicly – and sooner – regarding the circumstances surrounding Dr. Ladner’s status. Last week I did go on record supporting a ‘no confidence’ motion passed by my faculty colleagues in the School of International Service. Subsequently, I spoke in behalf of a similar motion at the University Senate meeting and voted with other Senators to communicate a resolution of no confidence to the board. I have participated in two candid and lengthy discussions over home cooked dinners with Anderson Hall residents.

But as someone who writes about conflict escalation, what concerns me most is the question with which I introduce my book on conflict escalation in Sri Lanka: “How did it come to this? ; How did we let it come to this?

Dr. Ladner’s ‘imperial’ tendencies, along his strong leadership qualities and feel for AU’s distinctiveness were known and discussed by many on campus, including me. Was the fact that this ‘imperialism,’ and an abrasive style appeared to be sanctioned by the Board of Trustees and were coincident with real progress AU was making sufficient justification for keeping silent publicly? Should I not at least, have communicated my concerns privately to Dr. Ladner, as I might have done. AU friends whose disinterested judgment I respect advised me that silence was the wisest course and silence was the course I chose. Whether speaking out or in private, some months or years ago, would have made a difference and whether the difference would have been for good or ill, I will never know, for sure. But I am conflicted about my decision to keep silent, when I could have spoken and might have made a difference.

Current circumstances remind me of our legal system’s imperfections in facilitating conflict resolution. At AU, today, stakes are high – on both sides. Personal reputations, the reputation of the University and its Board and large amounts of money are involved. That is why high priced lawyers, and consultants have been engaged by all parties, escalating costs still further. Like the conflict between rival Sinhalese and Tamil protagonists the conflict now appears to have reached a stage where no amicable resolution is conceivable to anyone. There will only be “winners” and “losers”. But the victory of the ‘winners,’ whomever they are, may be hollow.

Many things impress me about AU’s students and one that impresses me most is how much they learn over the four or so years they spend with us. Much of the learning takes place outside of the classroom. Students are more alert to integrity and truth telling – and also to hypocrisy and 'spin' than those of us – like me – who have become more jaded. Many are idealistic, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of sharing students’ daily lives. For some, perhaps many, the events of the past few will weeks and the weeks to come will provide one of the most memorable – perhaps the most memorable – learning experience of their four years at American University.

As we grapple with the complex issues AU is facing and will be facing, those of us with institutional responsibilities, especially faculty and faculty administrators need to reflect on the lessons our students are learning from the Dr. Ladner controversy, take responsibility for those lessons to the degree possible and consider making them as explicit as we can. This will not only be a contribution to our students. It will be a contribution to ourselves.


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