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
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.