June 13, 2013

MORE THAN 200 years old, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., ranks among this country’s most venerable scholarly societies. Early members included John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s known as a club where the highly credentialed celebrate themselves. So many eyebrows were raised when the Boston Globe reportedlast week that academy President Leslie Berlowitz had listed on her résumé a New York University doctoral degree that NYU has no record of bestowing.

The Globe reported that Ms. Berlowitz had submitted the erroneous résumé with the academy’s applications for at least three federal grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her annual salary for the fiscal year ending in March 2012 was reported to be more than $598,000, high for the executive of a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $8.5 million (also for the fiscal year ending in March 2012) and just a few dozen staff members. Follow-up articles depicted her as unlikable, citing numerous disgruntled former employees who described a poisonous office culture of their former boss’s making, characterized by public humiliation and arbitrary firings.

Responding to the initial allegations, a spokesman for the American Academy insisted that Ms. Berlowitz never intended to represent herself as a PhD and explained the mistake as “an iteration of her résumé created at the staff level.” Louis W. Cabot, the academy’s executive board chairman, also stood behind Ms. Berlowitz: “We look forward to her leading the academy for years to come,” he said in a statement issued June 3.

Academy spokesman Ray Howell said the organization decided June 5 to retain the Boston law firm Choate, Hall & Stewart to conduct an independent inquiry. The next day, the Globe reported that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office was looking into Ms. Berlowitz’s résumé and her high salary. The Globe also reported that Ms. Berlowitz had “requested time away from her day-to-day activities” during the investigation. Mr. Howell would not comment on whether Ms. Berlowitz would be paid during this period.

The nature of the institution that Ms. Berlowitz leads and the resentment among subordinates that she apparently generated during her 16 years there have piqued interest in the academic world. A line should be drawn between her alleged lie and the less-than-glowing testimonials about her personality. But dishonesty corrodes. If Ms. Berlowitz misrepresented her credentials, her offense merits her exit. An untruthfully listed doctoral degree violates the principle of intellectual integrity that the American Academy claims to hold dearest.