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Embattled head of American Academy of Arts and Sciences to resign

Leslie Berlowitz, President of The American Academy of Arts.

Kurt Hegre for The Boston Globe

Leslie Berlowitz, President of The American Academy of Arts.

Dogged by charges that she inflated her resume and abused her position, the embattled president of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences agreed to resign at the end of the month, the institution announced Thursday, ending weeks of controversy that had engulfed the organization and threatened to tarnish its reputation.

Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, who has overseen the Cambridge honorary society for the past 17 years, had been on paid leave from the academy for more than a month while an outside law firm investigated allegations, first reported by the Globe, that she falsely claimed to have a doctorate from New York University and misstated her work history in federal grant applications.

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Berlowitz, 69, also came under fire for berating staffers and receiving an oversized pay package — more than $598,000 in fiscal 2012 alone for an organization with only three dozen staffers. The attorney general’s office also asked whether the academy fully reported all her executive perks, such as first-class travel.

“Although I am tempted to provide a point-by-point response to the questions that have been raised in recent weeks, I believe there is only one fact of consequence that bears mentioning,” wrote Berlowitz in a farewell letter to members Thursday. “I always acted in good faith and with the best interests of the Academy at heart.” Berlowitz declined an interview request.

Under the terms of her resignation, the academy said Berlowitz will receive no severance, but will get a one-time $475,000 payment for retirement benefits, deferred compensation, and accrued vacation under her contract, something the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley pledged Thursday to investigate. Berlowitz will also receive supplemental health insurance for five years at a cost of no more than $3,500 a year.

“The agreement has been reviewed by independent legal counsel, and the board has determined that this agreement is in the academy’s best interest,” academy chairman Louis W. Cabot said in a letter to members. The statement was noticeably void of any praise for Berlowitz, who long enjoyed strong support from the board before the Globe first noted discrepancies in her resume.

The academy also announced broader changes, including the departure of Cabot, a longtime Berlowitz ally, when his term as chairman ends in October. He is expected to be replaced by Don Randel, a former president of the University of Chicago. Cabot also announced that a special commission will examine the academy’s pay practices after complaints that Berlowitz earned more than most university presidents.

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Berlowitz, a native New Yorker, said the academy had accomplished a great deal during her tenure, including improving the academy’s finances and diversifying the membership. But she said she thought her resignation was “in the best interests of all concerned. ” She did not elaborate.

Berlowitz’s critics cheered the announcement of her departure, saying her doctored resume had badly damaged an organization meant to celebrate intellectual achievement.

“What the academy has done is long overdue,” said Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe, an academy member since 1980. “Whether this step will suffice to restore the reputation and integrity of this scholarly institution . . . remains to be seen. But anything less would have been insufficient.”

The controversy has attracted national attention because of the academy’s prestige. Founded by John Adams and other Harvard College graduates during the Revolutionary War, the academy publishes a quarterly journal, holds lectures for members, and annually elects scores of the brightest scholars, artists, and leaders. Past members have included George Washington, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr.

But academics typically have little tolerance for people exaggerating their educational credentials. Marilee Jones, an admissions dean at MIT, left in disgrace in 2007 after she falsified her degrees. Doug Lynch, a vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania, quit last year after disclosures that he falsely claimed to have a doctorate.

The academy also said it is launching a search for a new chief executive, a process expected to take several months.

A spokeswoman for the academy declined to release the results of its law firm’s investigation or to answer questions about what it uncovered. The spokeswoman, Pamela Jonah, also declined to say whether the academy plans to remove Berlowitz as a member of the academy or revise its past tax returns to disclose more details about the perks she received.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said Thursday it planned to “continue to review the circumstances that led to Leslie Berlowitz’s contract and compensation levels, and that ultimately resulted in this large separation agreement,” referring to the $475,000 payment.

Christopher Loh, a Coakley spokesman, said the office will also review any findings from the academy’s committee tasked with examining the pay practices. The committee will include US Appellate Judge Diane P. Wood, Amherst College president Biddy Martin, and New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse.

Supporters have long praised Berlowitz for boosting the academy’s fund-raising, launching new programs, and balancing the budget.

Kathryn Bard, a Boston University archeology professor, who recently had dinner with Berlowitz, praised her for creating a fellowship program for scholars early in their careers and promoting interdisciplinary work in the social sciences.

“I think she has done some important things and made good contributions,” said Bard, who was elected to the academy three years ago. She said Berlowitz denied ever claiming to have a doctorate — the issue at the heart of the controversy — but even Bard said her resignation was probably “the best thing for all parties.”

And critics said Thursday’s announcement marked the beginning of a new chapter for the academy. New York University history professor Thomas Bender said he was happy with both Berlowitz’s resignation and some of the other changes announced, such as the new chairman and special committee, though he hopes the academy does even more to improve its governance.

“I think it is a good outcome,” said Bender, a member of the academy since 1994 who has been concerned about the academy's governance. “The issues were serious; in response, serious and decisive acts have been taken.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect name for Amherst College president Biddy Martin.

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