What exactly does it take to lose the faith of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences?
For a couple of weeks now, the Cambridge institution has been under siege amid allegations that its longtime president, Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, has committed a litany of offenses, the major one being claiming a doctorate from New York University that she never earned.
Berlowitz was placed on paid leave from her $598,000-a-year job while her tenure is being investigated by the law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart. They keep getting more to look into: The latest report by the Globe’s Todd Wallack indicates that she was made a fellow of the academy under curious circumstances, which were covered by rewriting a months-old press release.
The academy is a surprising setting for a scandal. Founded by John Adams, it is best known for its annual tradition of electing scholars and other luminaries to join its ranks. It also produces a quarterly magazine and sponsors research. It is highly influential in the community of brand-name thinkers, even if most of us are only vaguely aware of it.
Berlowitz has responded to the allegation of resume inflation by blaming her staff. Though the claim that she got a PhD from New York University appears on multiple grant applications, she has argued that is was somehow inserted by her employees and that she had no knowledge of it. That’s an odd defense for a notorious micromanager who, by all accounts, rode herd over the unlucky souls who worked for her.
Actually, Berlowitz herself implied in a letter written for her 50th high school reunion that she had gotten a doctorate, though she stopped short of saying she had finished it. The notion that her presumed degree was just a misunderstanding is hardly credible.
The academy has responded to the crisis at an 18th century pace. While Berlowitz is on leave, the lawyers are investigating. There is no timetable for completing the investigation, much less making a decision on her future. Her bosses seem content to let events unspool as slowly as possible.
That’s a mistake, but not a big surprise. The academy’s board is following in the tradition of many a nonprofit board, unaccustomed to challenging the people they supervise. They are busy people, and Berlowitz apparently is their friend. They deeply believe in process, and they feel no evident sense of urgency. This will all be sorted out, someday. What’s the rush?
Berlowitz is not granting interviews, but has released a statement maintaining her innocence and professing her devotion to the academy. In Nixonian fashion, she accepted responsibility, but not blame.
“I never intentionally misrepresented my accomplishments to obtain an improper benefit for the Academy or for myself,” Berlowitz said in the statement. “I accept responsibility for any materials that may have left an incorrect impression of my record. I recognize that the current debate has become a distraction for the Academy. This is deeply troubling to me. I remain devoted to the institution and want to see its good work continue.”
Let it be noted that Berlowitz has her defenders. She has been a prolific fund-raiser and has raised the profile of the institution. She appears to have managed that partly by handing out memberships to rich people like Bob Kraft and Liberty Mutual’s Ted Kelly, who will never be confused with serious researchers.
But despite her achievements, in an academy with a serious academic pedigree, her phony doctorate is a mortal blow to her credibility.
If Berlowitz is really concerned about the academy, she does have one available act of grace: She could quit. That would bring an end to the “distractions” she frets about and allow the academy to regain its bearings. Surely she knows it’s probably too late to save herself. There’s still time to spare the academy.