The embattled chief executive of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences plans to take time away from her responsibilities running the Cambridge honorary society while an outside law firm investigates reports that she has embellished her resume for at least a decade.
The academy announced Thursday that Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, who has overseen the scholarly institution for the past 17 years, has “requested time away from her day-to-day activities” while the Boston law firm of Choate Hall & Stewart conducts an independent inquiry into reports about her conduct.
Earlier this week, the Globe reported that Berlowitz claimed to have a doctorate from New York University and misstated her work history in at least three federal grant applications from 2003 to 2012.
In a statement Thursday, the board said Berlowitz will remain as president and is fully cooperating with the inquiry.
“Together, we believe these steps are appropriate to address and resolve the questions that have been raised,” the board said in a statement.
A board spokesman declined to say whether Berlowitz will be paid while she takes time away or to say how long the inquiry might last.
The announcement was made a day after Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office contacted the board to find out how it was handling questions about Berlowitz’s resume, compensation, and other issues.
On Monday, the Globe reported that Berlowitz earned total compensation of more than $598,000 in fiscal 2012, four times the median salary for the directors of all US nonprofits that size, according to a GuideStar USA survey.
Coakley’s office, which oversees charitable organizations in Massachusetts, also planned to ask whether the board fully disclosed Berlowitz’s executive perks, such as first-class air travel, on its tax forms.
“We are pleased that the executive board has retained independent counsel to conduct a full investigation into the questions and concerns that have been raised,” said Coakley spokesman Brad Puffer. “Our office will continue to actively monitor this investigation and further action by the board to ensure it carries out its fiduciary responsibility.”
Berlowitz has repeatedly declined requests for interviews, but an academy spokesman previously blamed academy staff for adding the 1969 doctorate to her resume and other documents and said Berlowitz “was unaware of the mistakes.”
However, Berlowitz personally signed at least one of the grant applications. Several former staff members said they doubted she was unaware of the mistakes because she was known for meticulously reviewing grant proposals and other academy paperwork.
Berlowitz’s inflated resume has gained special notice in academic circles because of the academy’s prominence in celebrating academic achievement for more than two centuries. It was founded by John Adams and other Harvard College alumni in 1780 and boasts a roster of members that includes 250 Nobel laureates and 60 Pulitzer Prize winners. Past inductees include Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, and Duke Ellington.
Many academics have little tolerance for people lying about their degrees. Marilee Jones, a popular admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, left in disgrace in 2007 after she falsified her degrees.
David Hollinger — a historian at the University of California, Berkeley — applauded the academy’s decision to hire an outside law firm to investigate, both because of the mounting evidence that Berlowitz exaggerated her academic credentials and concerns that academy members could not rely on the board to thoroughly investigate the issues on their own. The chairman of the board, 91-year-old industrialist Louis W. Cabot, has long been considered one of Berlowitz’s strongest supporters.
“The leadership of the academy has shown itself to be so close to Berlowitz herself that an outside investigation is imperative,” said Hollinger, a longtime academy member and frequent contributor to the academy’s journal Daedalus.
Berlowitz has long been a polarizing figure at the academy.
Some credit her with energizing the academy’s fund-
raising and launching new programs, while others complain she mistreated employees with frequent tirades, prompting some to quit in a matter of days or weeks.
One former worker recalled that Berlowitz once posted yellow tape over the entryway to the employee kitchen, cordoning it off like a crime scene, for weeks because a worker left a dirty spoon in the sink. Another said Berlowitz screamed at employees if they talked to one another in the office.
James Miller, who worked as Daedalus editor for eight years under Berlowitz, said he hopes the law firm will examine her treatment of employees and allegations that she improperly meddled in the selection process for new academy members.
“It’s about time that somebody called this bully to account,” said Miller, now a professor and special adviser to the provost at the New School in New York City. “Leslie Berlowitz’s behavior toward staff members has for too long made a mockery of the academy’s high ideals.”
Federal officials are also examining whether Berlowitz or the academy may have violated federal law by including false biographical information in three grant applications to the National Endowment for the Humanities since 2003.
In addition to citing a nonexistent degree, the grant applications also misstated her employment history at NYU, using a different title for one job and overstating the length of time she held another, according to university records.
The endowment, which gave the academy $1.2 million based on the proposals, asked its investigative arm to look at whether the academy broke any laws earlier this week.
Two other agencies that gave the academy grant money, the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, have not yet released copies of the grant proposals and would not say whether they have launched their own inquiries.
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. And an employment ad referred to her as “Dr. Berlowitz” three times, though the only doctorate it mentions is an honorary degree from Northeastern University.
Richard Wilson, a Harvard University professor emeritus and member of the academy for 55 years, said the reports were “sufficiently serious that basically all the academy members must take notice.”Todd Wallack can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @twallack.