Liar, Thief, College President: The Tragic Story of Ben Johnson


Sometimes a college president’s road to malfeasance ends not with a punch line to a bitter joke, but in genuine tragedy. Such is the case of Ben Johnson, the former president of Peru (Nebraska) State College, who offed himself on April 12.

The walls of his handcrafted house of cards were falling down all around him. In 2009, a year after his retirement, he paid a $1200 fine to the state for failing to disclose a deferred compensation deal, to the tune of nearly one-half million dollars, he’d negotiated with Peru State’s foundation. A deal supposedly unreported to the Nebraska State College Board of Trustees.

But the paltry fine was nothing compared to the revelations that came to light in the weeks leading up to his suicide. State auditors had uncovered that Johnson used about $43,400 from a university-related account to pay personal bills. The account was funded by profits from the college’s book store funneled into a “presidential discretionary” account through the same foundation. Apparently, Johnson had access to the account even after his presidency ended. According to the Journal-Star.com, the account remained open until Johnson himself closed it in 2010—two years after his retirement.

Better late than never, though, Nebraskan state officials finally did get around to looking into Johnson’s “discretionary” spending, and found, in addition to the clothes, meals, entertainment and travel Johnson helped himself to, Johnson had other things, of a more indiscrete variety, to keep secret. The Journal-Star.com continues the story:

During the investigation, [State Auditor] Foley’s staff also discovered problems with the resume Johnson used when applying for the Peru State presidency:
* Johnson was found guilty of a felony — making an untrue statement and/or omission to state material facts to investors — in 1989 and spent almost nine months in a California county jail in the early 1990s, according to the audit.
According to Foley, documents show Johnson was found guilty of selling limited partnerships improperly in excess of $100,000.
* Johnson’s Jan. 28, 1999, cover letter seeking the Peru State job was on Thomas College letterhead. Johnson signed the letter as a vice president at the school, but he had been terminated from Thomas College in Thomasville, Ga., two months earlier.
Johnson later filed a civil suit against Thomas College for breach of contract. The school responded that Johnson had misrepresented his qualifications in applying for the job.
A court dismissed that suit in October 1999, four months after Johnson was hired at Peru.

Former Peru State College President Ben Johnson was a serial conman, thief, and liar. As jaundiced a view as I might hold of colleges presidents, most of them, even I will acknowledge, cannot boast of possessing such a resume. It’s probably true that more than a few have a handful of questionable expenses charged to their discretionary accounts, but it is also true that many expenses that look “questionable”—meals, travel, mostly—really are expected and job-related costs an honest college president must incur. No, Ben Johnson is a poster boy for malfeasance in higher education to be sure, but not only presidential malfeasance. This time the rot really and truly started at the top, with the Nebraska State College Board of Trustees who apparently did no diligence, let alone due diligence, in hiring Johnson back in 1999. The rot also permeated the foundation’s board, which did not properly oversee foundation funds, if indeed it exercised any oversight at all.

I am flabbergasted no reference checks undertaken at the time of Johnson’s hiring revealed his termination from Thomas College and the reasons for it. I am stunned that no background checks revealed his conviction as a felon and his time in stir.

With nary a mention of his crimes or his sad demise, the Peru State College web site has nothing but kind words, and many of them, for the late Ben Johnson. Apparently his tenure there helped turn around a failing campus. Too bad there was nobody around to do the same for the people who held the campus and its funds in their trust.

Suggestion for the Nebraska State College Board of Trustees: Use this the next time you check the references of a candidate for a college presidency.

Dear Readers: I would like to explore Johnson’s life and work more; if you knew or worked with him at Peru State, Thomas College or elsewhere, please write to me at callmemiss1@gmail.com. Many thanks.

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15 thoughts on “Liar, Thief, College President: The Tragic Story of Ben Johnson

  1. Wow; I first must confess my love for stories such as these, but even with this bias you always make me laugh at the same time that I am outraged. I am also inspired to find a similar way of injecting my wrath into pieces that are really not about the exact people I’d like to skewer.

  2. The real Ben Johnson (wonderful character actor and cowboy extraordinaire) would have been a better choice for the folks in Peru. Wouldn’t have been any sticky fingers. Based upon Ben’s resume he would probably still be with us and still be held in high esteem if he had set his eyes on a political career in Massachusetts instead of squandering his considerable skills in higher education. He’d a been a natural as, say, the president at U Mass after a hugely successful career in the legislature. Oh my gosh it’s deja vu all over again!

    P.S. Do I get any kind of prize for using two french words in the the same posting?

  3. How did Ben get his job in Nebraska? I think I can shed some light on that. I’ve sent resumes, gone to interviews and wound up living and working in many places that most people wouldn’t call garden spots. Looking at a map of Nebraska it’s pretty clear that Peru, despite the college, aint a garden spot.

    I once went to a job interview in a place called McCook, Nebraska. It’s on the opposite side of the state from Peru and it was most definitely not a garden spot. Now I’m not here to enumerate Mccook’s short comings. Let’s let leave it that while McCook was not the edge of the world you could see it from there.
    Anyway, I went to the interview figuring I’d be competing with three or four other finalists. I also figued I’d actually be asked questions at my interview. I was wrong on both counts. Not only was I the only finalist, but my interview started with an extended, somewhat uncomfortable silence before the 80 something mayor cleared her throat and said, “well, I’m pretty satisfied with Mr. *****’s resume and I can’t think of any questions.” I was tossed a few desolatory softball questions by the other “interviewers” and was back in my motel room less than forty minutes after I’d left it. My point is that the non-garden spots (and believe me Nebraska has more than its fair share) don’t attract vast numbers of highly qualfied candidates for anything.

    PS Not suprisingly I was offered the job in McCook, but turned it down in part because a shockingly high percentage of the population looked to be recent survivors of grissly farm accidents.

  4. In the words of the late Ben Johnson:

    What though the greedy fry
    Be taken with false baits
    Of worded balladry,
    And think it poesy?
    They die with their conceits,
    And only piteous scorn upon their folly waits.

    Oh, wait, wrong Ben Jonson…

  5. I knew the man. Beyond the criminality, he was just plain mean–bordering on sociopathic. He wrecked a few careers and injured a lot of people’s lives. Ben was a cruel and despicable human being.

  6. Maybe you should do a more thorough job of investigating a story before you actually do a tabloid “National Enquirer” style piece where you found your facts via other blogs vs. the actual facts. It is very easy to “Skewer” someone once they are dead, and not around to defend themselves or answer the allegations. I knew Dr. Johnson at Peru State, and he was one of the most generous, wise and enlightened human beings on this planet. He turned around a dying little college and for that, he should be commended. He mentored people he believed in, and had no tolerance for lazy or bigoted attitudes. It is very easy to be mean spirited, sarcastic and bitter under the disguise of a blog, where you do not even share your name. Maybe you are bitter because no college would hire you.

    • Lacy: Thank you for writing. I think that you might have misunderstood my post on Ben Johnson, which I used only newspaper reports, court documents, and college websites (including Peru State’s) as sources. I called his case “tragic” because obviously it was–it is clear that he turned Peru State around, just as you say (and so does my essay). You might be interested to know that for many months after I wrote about Johnson I had a small side bar on my blog asking for people who knew him to write me. Several did. I would welcome your remembrances of Ben Johnson and would post them as written or without attribution, as you prefer. To me, Johnson remains a enigma because he clearly accomplished many positive things in his life, but it is also true that he was far from perfect. If this did not come through to you in the essay, I hope that I have been clear now. Again, thank you for writing.

  7. Funny thing is, years after Johnson’s demise the same attitude exists on the PSC campus. Some wonder, behind closed doors, how much of the vitriol cast at faculty was the doing of the departed Dr. Johnson and how much of it was the doing of those still in power?

  8. I can tell you how he was hired. Shortly before there was a push to move the college to Nebraska City. This was lead by the state board of trustees and the former president of the college Dr. Burns. This movement was shot down and Burns was removed…. but the board stayed. When the college went about the process of hiring the new president and the hiring committee brought forward 3 names. The state Board of trustees ignored all 3 of the committees recommendations and went with their hand selected guy……Ben Johnson. Within 2 years time of his hiring he removed nearly every person involved in thwarting the board of trustees plan to move the college. And that is how someone like Ben Johnson gets hired. He did do a lot superficially to improve the college, but he got rid of so many good people in the process.

  9. Ben Johnson was one of my teachers. Without going into detail…he was an ass. I was an A student in his class aswell as in all my classes; 1 week before the final I came down with pneumonia. I was hospitalized for almost a week. With what little energy I had I tried to complete my final. It was a case study. With a 2 page essay for an answer. I had 1 1/2 typed pages of notes in order of which they were to be written in the essay. I did what I could but was too ill to finish. I turned in what I had completed. Thinking my work at the least desearved an “F” or 50%. All I needed for an “A” was 14%. I got a zero. I sent him doctors notes and explain that I was ill. He said it was not his fault that I was sick and he was standing by his grade. Because of this asshole I did not graduate 4.0 but rather 3.93. Pissed is not the word!

  10. I met Ben Johnson many years ago, in the early ’70’s. Ben and I knew and maintained occasional contact with each other for nearly 40 years since 1972 when he was a professor in the English department of a liberal arts college just north of Chicago IL where I was student. He was smart, charismatic, and well known around campus for driving a beautiful (60’s or early 70’s) classic XKE style V-12 Jaguar. A stylish sort of guy, but he reminded me more of someone who was simply very busy having a lot of fun achieving some things in life that many only dream of achieving. After college I briefly worked with Ben in his several businesses, however I had my own interests to pursue and we eventually parted ways amicably. We never lost contact through the years being thousands of miles apart, or after long periods without correspondence. But then our times and lives moved along increasingly divergent paths when I last heard from Ben early in 2009 when he reported life and things as being well, his pride and optimism for Peru State, and its future as bright and promising. Sadly, It was our last contact, I never heard from Ben again. So upon trying to locate him, then finding and reading this article I am dismayed and saddened to learn of the unfortunate events leading to the loss of his life.
    Ben would often charge into ideas with such boldness, intellect, and charm that more times than not, he came away being welcomed as fresh and visionary. Nevermind that he was actually bending or breaking some important boundaries or rules along the way, and also becoming a force of uncertain change. He seemed proud to be an individual in the vein of noted acclaimed leaders sharing the same trait: boldly testing boundaries and bending rules to achieve a desired result.
    I may never know or understand the what and why of Ben’s last few years, especially the suicide. I fondly recall memories of strolling on the beach with Ben and his family, hearing of his most recent successes and failures. From his own words I knew his proudest career achievements entering retirement would certainly be serving as Peru State’s president for those 9 years.
    Personally, I will remember just knowing him as Friend, with no strings or responsibilities attached. Maybe I’m the most fortunate of all.

    R.I.P. Ben E. Johnson

    P.S. If anyone has email or contact information for his remaining family please contact me.

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