Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is looking into allegations that the head of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences inflated her academic credentials for at least a decade and received far more pay than her peers at similar institutions.
Coakley’s office said Wednesday it plans to reach out to the Cambridge honorary society’s board to find out how it is handling questions about Leslie Cohen Berlowitz’s resume, salary, and other issues following a Globe report that she falsely claimed to have a doctorate and earned total compensation of more than $598,000 in 2012. The attorney general’s office, which oversees charitable organizations in Massachusetts, also plans to look into whether the academy fully disclosed Berlowitz’s other perks, such as first-class travel, in tax filings.
“These allegations raise a number of questions and concerns for the board and for us,” said Coakley spokesman Brad Puffer, adding that the academy’s board of directors has the primary fiduciary duty to oversee the integrity of the institution.
Berlowitz and academy board members have refused to answer questions about Berlowitz’s resume this week.
But an academy spokesman, Ray Howell, blamed academy staff members for adding the nonexistent doctorate and other misstatements to Berlowitz’s resume and other documents. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded the academy $1.2 million over the past decade based on requests that included the embellished resume, previously said it referred the matter to its investigatory arm.
The resume has gained special attention in academic circles because the academy has been known for honoring the highest intellectual achievements for more than two centuries. Every year, it inducts hundreds of scientists, artists, and leaders into the academy. Its members include 250 Nobel Prize laureates and 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.
In addition to the resume issue, the academy has faced questions about Berlowitz’s salary. She earns more than most college presidents, even though the academy has only a few dozen employees and a budget of about $8 million a year.
Penalties can be severe for academics who inflate their credentials. Marilee Jones, a beloved admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was forced out in disgrace after she admitted she falsified her degrees in 2007.
But so far, the academy board, which is charged with overseeing Berlowitz and the 233-year-old institution, has declined to say whether it will investigate.
One member — Gerald Early, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis — said Wednesday he was busy researching a book about Philadelphia with his daughter.
“I am sure the academy will handle its affairs as it needs to,” Early said.
Another board member, MIT neuroscientist Emilio Bizzi, said via e-mail that he was traveling and unavailable for comment. Cornell University emeritus professor Jerrold Meinwald referred questions to an academy staff member.
Neal F. Lane, a Rice University physicist who worked in the Clinton White House, said he makes it a policy to never comment on matters regarding his service on the academy board. Two other members, Robert P. Henderson and retired industrialist Louis W. Cabot, could not be reached.
On Monday, the day before the Globe story was published, the board issued a statement saying Berlowitz had the board’s full confidence and that it expected her to serve for many years to come.
But Donald Kennedy, an academy member and president emeritus of Stanford University, said he believes the board should conduct a “thoughtful investigation” to find out whether Berlowitz was involved in misstatements on her resume. He noted that lying on a grant application could give an institution an unfair advantage over others competing for money.
Several former employees said they doubted assertions that Berlowitz had no idea that her resume listed a doctorate from New York University on grant applications for a decade. They said she scrutinized all the documents at the academy.
“For her to blame her staff for this is absolutely ridiculous,” said Carla MacMillan, who worked as Berlowitz's executive assistant in 2006. “She micromanages everyone, and there is not one single thing that leaves that academy without her reading and rewriting it.”
Though Berlowitz enrolled in a doctoral program, NYU has no record she completed her dissertation or received the degree. NYU also said its employment records contradict her resume, showing she held a different title in one case and held another job for far fewer years.
A former employee who worked on the academy’s grant proposals during the period in question said Berlowitz “edited each with a fine tooth comb,” often requiring 10 or more drafts for one proposal.
Berlowitz also personally signed some grant submissions, including at least one with the false doctorate. “I would have to sit in her office for hours and hours to go over each and every last word with her,” said the employee, who asked not to be named because of fear it could hurt her career.
Another worker recalled that Berlowitz personally reviewed all names of potential nominees to be voted on by academy members.
“Everything bottlenecked through her office,” said Ben Didsbury, a former membership coordinator. “We were constantly waiting to produce ballots while Leslie was fussing over them.”
This is not the first time when, under fire, Berlowitz has blamed employees. Two former employees said she decided to remove a scholar’s name from the ballot for new inductees several years ago because she did not like the person. After an MIT administrator complained, she said deletion of the name was the fault of a staff member, said the two former employees, who declined to be named because of concerns it could hurt their careers.
Despite questions about her resume and pay, Berlowitz has defenders. Norman Bradburn, a University of Chicago professor emeritus who has worked with Berlowitz for years on research programs, said he could not imagine that she would look at the resume included in the grant applications.
Bradburn, who said he does not have firsthand knowledge of how proposals are prepared at the academy, said he suspected a rogue British secretary planted the misinformation in her resume at least a decade ago, noting that the resume used the British abbreviation for a doctorate.
“No one with Leslie’s experience would make such errors,” Bradburn said.Todd Wallack can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.