The Week in Ethics: Leadership Lessons at American Academy of Arts and Sciences

column photo of ethics under microscope The integrity of the leader of an honorary society for independent public policy — founded  in 1780 during the American Revolution – is  under question as a result of misrepresentations on her resume and criticisms from former employees over her bullying, micromanaging management style.

While there is never a good moment for negative media attention, it is coming at a particularly awkward time for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is landing on the eve of the June 19, 2013 release of a commission report the academy has guided for more than two years, expected to offer far reaching recommendations for education and cultural institutions.

Leslie Berlowitz, the head of the academy for the last 17 years, is now on leave while an internal investigation by an outside law firm addresses issues raised in a series of articles in the Boston Globe in June 2013. The articles indicate that the academy’s applications for at least three federal grants list Berlowitz having a doctorate from New York University (NYU) that NYU has no record of her completing. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which gave $1.2 million to the academy based on grant applications that included Berlowitz’s inflated credential, has referred the issue to its inspector general.  The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (charged with overseeing nonprofits) has also announced an investigation. Two others who gave grants to the academy (US Department of Energy and Carnegie Corporation of New York) are checking to see if false information was provided on their grant applications.

The articles indicate that in checking her resume against NYU records, where she worked before joining the academy, a job title for one position is misstated and length of service for another is misrepresented.  Academy employment ads refer to Berlowitz as “doctor” and further investigation by the Globe reporter found an email two years ago from Berkowitz where she implied she had a doctorate.

A month after turning down requests to be interviewed by the reporter and two weeks after the first Globe story was published, Berlowitz said in a statement that she “never intentionally misrepresented her accomplishments,” accepted responsibility for materials that left “an incorrect impression,” and acknowledged that she had the title of vice president of institutional advancement at NYU rather than academic advancement which, the Globe reported, has appeared on the academy website and in grant applications.  An academy spokesman originally blamed Berlowitz’s staff for resume errors, saying she was unaware of them.

The profile that emerges in the article is of a board/governing council extremely supportive of Berlowitz, who in 2004 bypassed the normal election process for membership into the Academy of Arts and Sciences — which honors the most accomplished scholars, innovators, and artists in their fields — when they added her as an inductee. They quietly inserted her name into “the original six-month-old announcement, a spokesman acknowledged, making it look as though Berlowtiz had been voted in along with everyone else in the spring.” Berlowitz’s $598,000 salary – higher than many college presidents’ — and first travel perks also indicate Board support. Former employees quoted in the article indicated the board ignored complaints about Berlowitz’s management style made to them.

The significant number of former employees willing to talk (anonymously and as named sources) to the Globe about their criticisms of Berlowitz’s leadership, calling her management style bullying, harsh, dismissive and micromanaging raise the question of what is motivating them. Is it a set up or revenge by those who believe they were treated badly capitalizing on her current vulnerability? Or is the issue an outcome of a detached governance process with too heavy reliance on the internal leader and no means to ensure that the leader’s management style and the organization’s work environment are functional and appropriate?

Either way it offers a cautionary tale about leaders vulnerability when they are unaware of the impact their leadership tone, style and communication have on employees; or worse, when they ignore or rationalize that impact without seeking to address it.

The unfolding saga at the academy also sends a message to boards that they have a responsibility to help an organization’s leader succeed by not just looking at the results, but being aware of the impact a leader is having on the larger team; and when there are red flags, stepping up to ensure the leader gets coaching in emotional intelligence or other issues, monitoring his or her workplace performance to be clear about expectations of improvement.

The academy’s purpose is to honor excellence. The need for all the investigations indicate that excellence has been compromised in terms of how the academy and their leaders have operated internally. Restoring integrity will involve transparency about the investigations’ findings, dealing directly with allegations about Leslie Berlowitz’s leadership, and putting as high a priority on how things are done internally as the achievements that result from them. The founding fathers would expect no less.

Gael O’Brien June 18, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her June 2013 column looks at leadership vulnerabilities of departing OSU president Gordon Gee.

About these ads
Explore posts in the same categories: Congress, Culture, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Governance, Integrity, Leadership, Reputation

Tags: , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

7 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: Leadership Lessons at American Academy of Arts and Sciences”

  1. Mick Ukleja Says:

    Thanks, Gael. Very informative and balanced. Great reminders of how little things can add up to bigger things. Looking back, the breaches in ethical behavior provided no real career catalyst. And the outcomes weigh much heavier than any advantage there might have been. Truly a lesson I am internalizing:).

    • Gael O'Brien Says:

      Thanks for your comment. In thinking about the issues now facing Ms. Berlowitz — and we don’t know yet what the results will be of the investigations — all the good that one does can be so easily erased in a given situation by our willful or careless mistakes about our credentials, or how we treat others. It is proof again for all of us that ethical conduct is a conscious choice not a passive GPS default.

  2. Mick Ukleja Says:

    In a talk I gave at the TEDx conference, my second point was “Test Your Excused.” It was entitled, “Life-Mastery, Self-correction, and Ethics.” Your article is right on and would have been a great example of my second point. Lying to ourselves is the most dangerous form of deception.


  3. It’s always disheartening to learn about intentional misrepresentations (or failed corrections to errors provided by others) by senior leaders, all the more so within supposedly honorary organizations such as this one. To also find out that her management style reflects a more “Jack booted” approach toward her team is particularly offensive. While the primary responsibility lies with the individual, this revelation also points out a failure by the organization itself that will (rightfully) suffer from their lack of vetting of their employees, particularly those in senior leadership positions.

  4. coachpray Says:

    San Diego mayor, Bob Filner, was quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune as saying, “I need help.” Clearly, he would benefit from reading this article.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 442 other followers

%d bloggers like this: