No record of academy head’s doctoral degree
Where deeds are honored, one is in doubt
CAMBRIDGE — Every fall, Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, oversees the induction of hundreds of the brightest scholars, artists, and leaders into the prestigious organization, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected honorary societies, whose membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.
But records show that Berlowitz, who has led the academy for 17 years, has exaggerated her own academic achievement as part of efforts to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funding.
In at least two applications for federal grants over the past decade, Berlowitz said she received a doctorate in English from New York University in 1969, a degree NYU said she never earned.
Berlowitz said in the applications for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities that she had a “D. Phil” — the British abbreviation for a doctorate of philosophy or PhD — from NYU. The academy also described her repeatedly as a doctor in an employment ad.
But NYU spokesman James Devitt said the university has no record of her receiving a doctorate or completing her dissertation.
A resume on file at NYU from when Berlowitz worked there indicated she was still working on her doctorate in the late 1980s or early 1990s, decades after she claimed to have received the degree in the grant applications.
Devitt also said the school’s records contradict statements in her resume about her employment history at the university, showing she misstated one job title and the length of time she held another.
Berlowitz, a 69-year-old New York native, declined repeated requests for interviews over the past two weeks and refused to meet with a reporter who stopped by the academy Monday morning. The academy referred calls to an outside public relations consultant, Ray Howell, who declined to answer specific questions but issued a general statement Monday evening:
“Neither the academy nor President Berlowitz is going to respond to subjective, interpretive, and gossipy allegations from former employees and unnamed sources,” Howell said in the statement. “Nor are they going to respond to personal questions that are irrelevant, do not belong in the public domain and, frankly, smack of sexism.”
The misleading resume is just the latest controversy to shadow Berlowitz’s tenure at the academic think tank, which was founded during the American Revolution by John Adams, John Hancock, and other Harvard College graduates as Boston’s answer to Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Staff members have long complained that Berlowitz micromanages their work and that she dishes out frequent tongue-lashings. Some workers left after only a few days or weeks.
“She’s an impossible executive,” said Robert Haselkorn, a University of Chicago plant biologist and former member of the governing board who stopped paying dues more than a decade ago because he was so upset with Berlowitz’s leadership.
But she is an extremely well-paid executive. The academy recently reported that her paycheck has risen to more than $598,000 for the fiscal year ending March 2012, far more than her peers, according to tax records. In fact, Berlowitz earned more than most university presidents, even though the academy has only a few dozen employees and a comparatively small budget.
Despite the complaints, Berlowitz has impressed directors by raising money, balancing the budget, and launching new programs, according to several former members of the governing board.
“She has done quite well,” said Carolyn Shoemaker, a past board member and noted astronomer who acknowledges that she had little contact with academy staff members because she lived in Arizona. “Though we might not always approve of the way she treated staff, she was pretty effective as a fund-raiser and getting good publicity for the American Academy.”
Berlowitz also made a point of cultivating relationships with members of the board. One recalled that she offered to have the academy cover most of his expenses to attend a meeting in Italy.
“She was quite effective in handing out the goodies,” said Martin Dworkin, a former board member and microbiologist at the University of Minnesota. He noted that staff members sometimes said that “she kissed up and kicked down.”
Dworkin credits Berlowitz with helping to energize a once-sleepy institution by stepping up fund-raising and launching new initiatives, such as fellowship programs. But Dworkin said he ultimately concluded Berlowitz should be let go because she treated underlings so harshly.
Board members did not respond to requests for comment individually. But the chairman of the board, 91-year-old retired industrialist Louis W. Cabot, and the board as a whole released a statement backing Berlowitz late Monday:
“President Berlowitz has the highest integrity, a record of outstanding achievement, and our unqualified support,” the statement said. “We look forward to her leading the academy for years to come.”
At other academic institutions, people who fabricate degrees have often faced severe consequences.
Doug Lynch, a vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania, resigned last year after revelations that he falsely claimed to have a doctorate from Columbia University. Marilee Jones, a beloved admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, left in disgrace in 2007 after she admitted she falsified her degrees.
“In most situations at a university, lying about a professional degree would be grounds for instantaneous dismissal,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. “In academia, academic integrity is what we hold most dearly.”
Though the academy is not itself a university, its focus on honoring scholarship and academic achievements puts it squarely in the same realm. Several of the board members are current or retired professors from elite universities.
The academy refused multiple requests to provide a copy of Berlowitz’s resume or biography. Instead, a spokesman referred the Globe to a Wikipedia entry created by her public relations staff member that said she earned her “undergraduate and graduate degrees from New York University and Columbia University” but was vague about specific degrees.
However, she listed the nonexistent degree on at least two successful grant applications with the National Endowment for the Humanities, one from 2003 and another from 2010, that the Globe obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency gave the academy $650,000 based on the two grant applications.
The resume included in the applications also said she was vice president for academic advancement from 1991 to 1996 at NYU, when university records shows she was actually vice president for institutional advancement, handling fund-raising, rather than academic programs. The mischaracterization made Berlowitz’s work at NYU appear more relevant to the academy’s scholarly programs, which could be funded by the grants.
In addition, the resume said she was director of academic program development for eight years, when university records say she actually held the title for just over one.
Berlowitz personally signed the cover letter and other documents endorsing the 2003 grant application. And former employees said she insisted on reading every document that left the academy.
The nonexistent doctorate was also mentioned in a draft of an obituary the academy prepared a few years ago to be used in the event of her death; prominent people often have obituaries prepared in advance. The obituary praised her as “a scholar of American literature” who “received undergraduate and doctoral degrees from New York University.”
In addition, a six-page employment ad for the academy refers to her as “Dr. Berlowitz” three times — though the only doctorate it mentions is an honorary degree from Northeastern University, similar to ones awarded to actor Edward Asner and Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis . It is generally frowned on in academic circles to call oneself doctor after receiving a ceremonial accolade.
The questions about her biography come after Berlowitz’s critics have already tried unsuccessfully to oust her for other reasons.
She was almost fired in 1997, a year after she became chief executive of the academy, because of her heavy-handed management style, according to a former member of the governance board who asked not to be named.
Gail Loffredo lasted just 14 days as Berlowitz’s executive assistant in 2012. She said Berlowitz fired her last year after her teenage daughter found a lump in her chest and Loffredo told Berlowitz she needed to take her daughter to the doctor the following week. Loffredo later learned that Berlowitz had gone through as many as five other assistants in as many months.
“She is horrible,” Loffredo said, adding that she regularly witnessed Berlowitz scolding employees in her office in front of colleagues.
Ben Didsbury, a former membership coordinator charged with compiling contact information for academy fellows, recalled being ordered to apologize in front of other staffers after Berlowitz mistakenly called a person’s fax number rather the voice line and thought Didsbury had reversed the numbers.
“There was fear permeating through the whole place,” said Didsbury, who now works as a freelance audio engineer in Cambridge.
Workers were even afraid to speak much of the time, making the office seem eerily quiet. Didsbury recalls one time when an office assistant asked him if he needed any more staples, and Berlowitz stormed into his office yelling: “You do not talk to each other!”
At the same time, records show Berlowitz’s pay has swelled to nearly $600,000 in total compensation in 2012, quadruple what leaders of other similarly sized nonprofits earned, based on a survey by the nonprofit information clearinghouse Guidestar USA.
The executive of the academy’s onetime rival, the American Philosophical Society, earned less than $220,000 in 2011. The head of the Archaeological Institute of America, another scholarly institution based in Massachusetts, earned about $200,000 last fiscal year.
“Given the academy’s size, the compensation seems very high,” said Pete Smith, a nonprofit compensation consultant based in Washington, D.C. The academy reported it had just 44 employees (including part-time workers) and a budget of $8.5 million in 2012.
In addition to their unhappiness about Berlowitz’s outsized paycheck, former workers grumbled that she flies first class, stays at the nicest hotels, orders catered meals at the academy, and requires workers to chauffeur her between the office and her luxury apartment along the Charles River in Cambridge.
A former member of the academy board said he was shocked to learn about Berlowitz’s rising pay and benefits, suggesting that Berlowitz has taken increased control over the organization in recent years. In 2010, she added president of the academy to her title of chief executive, assuming a position previously held by an outside person.
“I am saddened and surprised to learn how much her salary has gone up,” said Roger Myerson, a Nobel laureate in economics at the University of Chicago. “I can’t believe that an independent president of the academy would have tolerated this kind of spending.”
Berlowitz has weathered criticism in the past. A decade ago, after years of infighting and at least one effort to oust her, she joked that she should celebrate seven years of running the academy. “A survival party,” she called it.