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editorial

Academy of Arts and Sciences needs a new, untainted leader

It’s time for Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to step down. The mission of the Cambridge honorary society is to elevate scholarship by recognizing and fostering top talent across academia. As a Globe investigation has revealed, however, Berlowitz has repeatedly inflated her education and employment credentials on grant applications that yielded more than $1 million for the institution. In doing so, Berlowitz flagrantly disregarded her duties to the 233-year-old academy, and the penalty should be severe.

Berlowitz has taken a leave of absence, and the academy’s governing council has hired a prominent law firm to investigate any wrongdoing. That’s an important first step. Nonetheless, recent revelations have raised a number of questions and concerns about both Berlowitz and the nonprofit’s board.

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As director, Berlowitz has been a prodigious fund-raiser and advocate for the liberal arts. But these accomplishments came at a steep cost. Berlowitz’s pay, at $598,000 annually, exceeds that of most college presidents. Add in the numerous other perks she enjoys — including first-class travel and daily chauffeuring, according to the Globe’s reporting — and her compensation far exceeds the norm for a small nonprofit of under 50 employees and an $8 million operating budget. It calls into question how closely the board was overseeing Berlowitz’s spending.

Making matters worse, the board appears to have turned a blind eye to an often heavy-handed management style. In 1997, one year into her tenure as the academy’s head, Berlowitz was almost fired for her mistreatment of staff. Yet this behavior continued, with more recent former employees describing her as an obsessive micromanager who prohibited them from even speaking to one another or the scholars who work on the same campus.

And yet it is also not surprising. Board members who disagreed with Berlowitz soon departed, allowing her to pack the board with members to whom she frequently dispensed, as one member described it, “goodies.” They showed their gratitude by quietly adding Berlowitz to the society’s list of 2004 honorees, six months after the original nominations — which included some of the world’s most accomplished scholars, artists, and leaders — were made public. Attorney General Martha Coakley has launched an investigation into allegations against the academy, but this case brings to light the need for a broader examination of governance at state charities and nonprofits.

Through a spokesman, Berlowitz has blamed the embellished resume, which included a fake doctorate from New York University, on rogue staffers. It’s a far-fetched explanation given Berlowitz personally signed several of the grant applications now in question. But even if it is just a clerical error, a true leader would step up, admit the mistake, and accept the consequences.

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