Every year, members of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge spend months sifting through nominations to find some of the world’s most accomplished scholars, artists, and leaders to join their institution.
And 2004 was no exception. The class of more than 200, elected by members and announced in the spring, included a US senator, the president of Duke University, and the future head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But shortly before the formal induction ceremony in October, the academy’s governing council decided to add just one more name of its own: the nonprofit’s chief executive, Leslie Cohen Berlowitz.
The academy then quietly inserted Berlowitz’s name into the original six-month-old announcement, a spokesman acknowledged, making it look as though Berlowitz had been voted in along with everyone else in the spring.
“It was a terrible thing to do,” Stanford University history professor emeritus Peter Stansky, a former council member, said of the decision to alter the April press release. “It’s a lie.”
For more than two centuries, the academy has honored excellence by promoting scholarship and selecting the best of the best to join its ranks. But members say they are worried about the integrity of the institution’s most important traditions, following allegations that Berlowitz inflated her resume, was overpaid, belittled staff, and micromanaged every aspect of the organization, including the elections.
The controversy threatens to overshadow one of the academy’s highest-profile projects, a blue-ribbon commission report to be released Wednesday that will push for more funding for the liberal arts.
“When mud flies, it is not pleasant,” said John W. Rowe, the retired energy executive who cochaired the academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. Rowe said he hopes the commission’s hard work will “trump whatever issues are within the academy.”
Berlowitz, who has run the institution for 17 years, began a paid leave a week ago after The Boston Globe reported that she falsely claimed to have a doctorate and that her work history was misstated in at least three grant applications to the National Endowment of the Humanities. The academy board hired a Boston law firm to investigate, and the endowment referred the matter to its inspector general.
Since then, officials at two other organizations that provided the academy with financial support — the US Department of Energy and the Carnegie Corp. of New York — confirmed they are also looking into whether the academy provided false information on grant applications.
In her first comments since the Globe reported problems with her resume, Berlowitz, 69, said she was deeply troubled that “the current debate has become a distraction for the academy.”
“I never intentionally misrepresented my accomplishments to obtain an improper benefit for the academy or for myself,” Berlowitz said in a prepared statement. “I accept responsibility for any materials that may have left an incorrect impression of my record.”
An academy spokesman said it would be inappropriate to comment on the concerns about her resume, her treatment of employees, or her 2012 pay of $598,000 while an investigation is underway.
The controversy over Berlowitz is a striking departure from the academy’s proud history. It was founded by John Adams and other prominent citizens in 1780, a date that is prominently displayed on the institution’s logo and front doors.
Originally chartered by the Massachusetts Legislature, the group has long organized lectures, conducted research, and published a quarterly scholarly journal. But it may be best known simply for electing new members, an honor that many scholars proudly list on their academic resumes.
Some academy members and former staff members worry that Berlowitz has become overly involved in the process, acting as a gatekeeper for who gets in and who stays out based on her friendships or other reasons.
Several former employees said Berlowitz pushed committees to add or drop candidates. And Berlowitz demanded to see all the ballots before they were tallied by the membership office, recalls former executive assistant Carla MacMillan.
“There needs to be a complete inquiry into how the academy has been managed, across the board, including how the academy chooses fellows,” said Jean Strouse, a biographer who was admitted to the academy the same year as Berlowitz.
Ray Howell, the academy spokesman, said Berlowitz sat in on commitee meetings and offered her opinion on candidates as part of her job, but did not have a vote. He also said Berlowitz had access to all the ballots and “was responsible for making sure the election process was administered appropriately.”
Others with ties to the academy complained that the academy revamped its membership categories under Berlowitz a decade ago to admit more wealthy executives and philanthropists, potentially as a way to court potential donors.
Since Berlowitz took over, the number of business executives and philanthropists admitted each year has risen from roughly seven to 11, including philanthropist Teresa Heinz Kerry, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and former Liberty Mutual chief Edmund F. Kelly.
“Honoring the mere accumulation of wealth taints the honor of authentic achievements in the arts and sciences,” said James Miller, a former editor of the academy’s scholarly journal, Daedalus. “It’s supposed to be an academy, not a highfalutin club for the leisure class.”
An academy spokesman, however, noted that the institution has always included business leaders. The honorary society has also elected many others outside academia, including former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, rock star Bruce Springsteen, actress Sally Field, and former Globe editor Martin Baron.
Still, the expanded corporate membership has brought undeniable financial benefits.
Five of the academy’s six biggest donors, accounting for more than one-third of the $39 million the academy raised from 2006 to 2010, were all either inducted into the business and philanthropy category themselves or foundations led by people who were, according to academy tax filings and membership records.
For example, Boston Scientific Corp. cofounder Peter Nicholas, who became a fellow in 1999, gave $2.4 million during the period. John Cogan, a Boston investment executive who joined the academy in 2005, gave $1.9 million. And Gershon Kekst, who founded a prominent Wall Street communications firm and was elected in 2006, gave $1 million through his family’s foundation.
Howell, the academy spokesman, noted that philanthropists and business leaders are typically among the most generous donors for nonprofits, but he declined to say who picked the executives to appear on the academy’s ballot or what criteria they used. Several members said they did not know either.
Critics say the lack of information about the academy is part of a larger pattern under Berlowitz of increasing secrecy and retreating from a historic mission of serving the public.
Three years ago, the academy started limiting neighbors’ access to the grounds — 5.1 acres of wooded land leased from Harvard University near the school’s campus — until the city of Cambridge intervened. The main building and gardens are still ringed today with signs noting it is a “private area,” and many academy events are closed to the public.
One former employee recalls being chastised for posting a sign on the front door saying “Welcome to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.” Berlowitz just wanted the name on the door, not the suggestion that everyone is welcome, said the worker, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation.
In addition, the academy has continued to lock away most of its historic archives, including letters from George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. That is despite the fact that the academy raised at least $500,000 for a new facility, finished in 2007, to make the collection available to “scholars and others.”
Jenny Andersson — a researcher at Sciences Po, a leading social sciences research center in Paris — said she has been trying for four years to get access to papers in the collection related to Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell. But Andersson said the academy will not even confirm what papers it has, let alone say when they might be available.
“This is most unusual for a scientific institution,” said Andersson. “It is quite sad that the academy in this way blocks historical research on an important part of American social and political thought.”
Howell, the academy spokesman, said the archives are gradually being put online, but the physical collection is not open to the public. He said the organization referred Andersson to other sources instead.
But much of the criticism of the academy centers around Berlowitz, a native New Yorker who took over as chief executive in 1996.
The council, which had 17 voting members, voted on its own in 2004 to make Berlowitz a fellow, bypassing the more than 4,000 existing academy members who are eligible to decide who will join their ranks.
Martin Dworkin, a University of Minnesota microbiologist who was on the council at the time, said he recalled that it was presented to the group as a “fait acompli” with little discussion.
Some members said they did not think Berlowitz had earned the honor and condemned the move to add her name retroactively to the news release announcing new members. The academy also publicly claimed that all the new members, including Berlowitz, were “elected by their peers through a rigorous selection process.”
“It’s absolutely absurd,” said Robert Haselkorn, a former council member and University of Chicago plant biologist long critical of Berlowitz.
But an academy spokesman noted the council had the option of electing one candidate a year on its own (it has since been increased to two) under the academy’s bylaws. He said Louis W. Cabot, who is now chairman of the board, nominated Berlowitz based on her service to the academy.
Cabot and other supporters have long credited Berlowitz with stepping up the institution’s fund-raising, boosting its public profile, and launching new programs, including a project to gather statistical data about the humanities.
Howell acknowledged that the academy belatedly added Berlowitz’s name to the April 30 news release after the council vote in October, but said “the press release was updated to be factual.”
Berlowitz is also under the most fire for a title she never actually received. She listed a doctorate in English from New York University in 1969 and misstated her work history on at least three grant applications from 2003 to 2012.
An academy spokesman initially blamed clerical errors by unnamed staff members. But the Globe has since found similar claims in other documents.
For instance, Berlowitz implied that she had a doctorate in a note to her former classmates at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private high school in New York, for their 50th reunion two years ago.
After working as a copy editor, she wrote, “I returned to NYU for a PhD in American literature with a specialization in Jewish-American and Holocaust literature.” But Berlowitz neglected to mention that she never received the degree.
Berlowitz also wrote that she served as vice president for academic advancement at NYU, a claim repeated on the academy’s website and in grant applications. But Berlowitz acknowledged in the statement she actually had a different title, vice president for institutional advancement.
As more questions surface about her resume, a growing number of members have criticized her. Joyce Appleby, an academy member and history professor emeritus at UCLA, said she did not find it credible that Berlowitz did not know that the doctorate was listed on the academy’s grant applications. “I find that a striking lack of integrity,” Appleby said, adding that she expects the board will ask her to step down.
William Neaves, president emeritus of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo. and an academy member, went further: “Ms. Berlowitz’s resignation is essential to restore the academy’s intellectual integrity.”Todd Wallack can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.