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A controversial subject at the academy

Is Leslie Berlowitz reviving the intellectual institution or just dividing it?

The phone rings. A stranger is calling out of the blue. It is Robert Haselkorn, a professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago. "I hear your newspaper is writing a story about Leslie Berlowitz," he says. Speaking on the record, he uses a four-letter Anglo-Saxonism to describe her, then says: "I have been trying to get rid of her for the past seven years."

Polite academic discourse is the first casualty where the controversial executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is concerned. Berlowitz's supporters say she is an agent of change who has breathed new life into what was once a moribund clique of inbred Cambridge academics. Her detractors say she is a manipulative, imperious power grabber who has needlessly alienated academy fellows and staff alike.

The 224-year-old academy is a self-described "international learned society composed of the world's leading scientists, scholars, artists, business people, and public leaders." Founded by John Adams as a rival to Benjamin Franklin's Philosophical Institute, the academy's 4,000 fellows include computer geniuses (Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs), architects (Moshe Safdie, Frank Gehry), writers (Philip Roth, John Updike), and random moneybags (Teresa Heinz Kerry, Ned Johnson). All are elected by their professional peers.

With an annual budget of $6 million, the academy sponsors public policy research, convenes symposia on weighty issues of the day, and publishes the well-regarded, if abstruse, policy journal Daedalus. In normal times, the fellows pay the annual dues ($200 for locals, $175 for others), list the honor in Who's Who, and are blissfully uninterested in the goings-on at the academy's cavernous headquarters building on Irving Street in Cambridge.

But these are not normal times. When Berlowitz was recruited from a deanship at New York University in 1997, she had a mandate to shake things up. Then-president Dan Tosteson, the former dean of the Harvard Medical School, commissioned a strategic plan that aimed to transform the academy into a broader, more diverse national organization.

Berlowitz's admirers and detractors agree that she has helped bring the academy into the 21st century. A prodigious fund-raiser, she has doubled the academy's budget and added programs to an institution that was in the red when she arrived. She has modernized the categories of fellows, adding members in the fields of computer science and philanthropy. Symbolically, she has opened the academy grounds to public concerts and literary events, and she recently won herself a six-year contract extension.

All of this has come at a cost -- seven years of turmoil and partisan bickering among the academy staff and among the fellows. Two top regional administrators have resigned in the past 20 months. Several programs have either left the academy or have been pushed out by Berlowitz. An anti-Berlowitz clique at the University of Chicago, of which Haselkorn is a member, is making itself heard. Turnover among the small, 35-person Cambridge staff is high.

"It was very difficult to conduct academy affairs with a revolving door of staff in Cambridge," says Anne Moffat, who resigned as administrative head of the academy's Midwest Center in November. "A significant number of people spoke to me about very trying working conditions."

"We are trying to become a more national organization, and we have experienced some growing pains," Berlowitz says. "We decided we didn't want to be a series of clubs. Anyone who has that mandate is going to break some eggs." Where staffing is concerned, she says, "our turnover is not out of the ordinary. Obviously, we are going through change, and in some cases we have encouraged turnover."

Berlowitz, an articulate, assertive, 50-something who did her graduate work in American literature, is a woman to whom few are indifferent.

"She has brought more focus, more energy, more funding, and more activity across the country to the academy," says Rosanna Warren, a university professor at Boston University. "The academy seems to be a very vibrant place right now. It's not just a Harvard-based club."

"She's a control freak," says Harvard social sciences professor emeritus Daniel Bell, for many years a resident scholar at the academy. "She has to have complete control of everything. If she has not initiated a project, she gets hostile to it. That alienates many people."

One thing is for sure: Life at the academy isn't boring, nor has it been since Berlowitz first walked through the door. Within 10 months of her arrival, the academy's top officers tried to fire her.

Tosteson, the former president, and Dudley Herschbach, a Nobel Prize-winning Harvard chemistry professor, "made a thorough investigation of her performance and found it to be very uneven," Tosteson says. "Everyone told us the same story," Herschbach says. "She was an incredibly nasty person who chewed people out in unacceptable ways. She kisses up and kicks down."

Faced with opposition from the leadership, Berlowitz mobilized support from other members of the academy's 17-member governing council, including former MIT professor Carl Kaysen and former academy president Leo Beranek. "A few of us who had been around a long time thought she was being given a bum rap," says Francis Bator, a retired Harvard professor of political economy who rallied to Berlowitz's side.

"These guys essentially threatened to disrupt the academy," Herschbach says. "Tosteson threw in the towel."

"I decided life is too short for me to be messing around with all that" is Tosteson's explanation.

In an interview, Berlowitz called Herschbach's charges, set down in a letter to the council, "libelous" and warned that Tosteson's account of the five-year-old events would be biased because "he was on the losing side." "It's too bad some of the people took the stand they took. It's an old story."

But in fact it is a recurring story.

Three years ago, Roger Myerson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and vice president of the Midwest Center ("annoying, but a very smart man" is how academy president Patricia Spacks describes him), tried to get the council to move Berlowitz out of administration to concentrate on her forte, raising money. "Leslie has done a good job adding national membership," Myerson says, "and I was going to propose she be assigned full time to fund-raising."

Myerson also opposed the appointment of Boston businessman Louis Cabot to the academy's vice presidency. "The administration was not being monitored full time by somebody who really cares about scholarship," Myerson says. (Spacks is a professor at the University of Virginia and divides her time between Cambridge and Charlottesville.) "I wanted to see more administrative oversight from Boston-area scholars.

"I was told there would be a discussion of her contract renewal, but there wasn't any discussion. The council never voted on it. I was astonished. I went to Spacks with my problems about Leslie, and she didn't give me any satisfaction."

Berlowitz and Spacks are quite cognizant of Midwest Center dissidents such as Myerson and Haselkorn, whom Berlowitz calls a "small, self-elected group." "It's true that there has been a sense of disaffection there," Spacks says. "There is certainly resentment in the Midwest about the fact that they believe they don't have a large enough proportion of the fellows."

There are also plenty of fellows closer to home voicing dissatisfaction with Berlowitz. Harvard Medical School professor Howard Hiatt, a former academy secretary, removed his Initiatives for Children project from the academy last year. Hiatt, who believes that Berlowitz has made some positive contributions to the academy, says the program withdrew in part because it had had a good run and in part because his program administrator, Penny Janeway, "finally left because of the climate at the academy."

"Leslie started getting in the way of any kind of fund-raising we did," Janeway says. "They would say you can't approach this foundation, and then I would catch flak from Leslie. They definitely didn't want Howard there. It was awful to watch."

In one bizarre incident, Hiatt says he learned that Berlowitz had read a fax intended for Janeway. "I took the issue to Berlowitz because I thought my faxes to Penny belonged to Penny and nobody else," he says.

"That is absolutely not true," Berlowitz says.

Two of Berlowitz's former assistants, Julie Dempster and Deb Collins, say their former boss made a habit of monitoring the mail that came to Spacks's office at the academy. "I was to open all of Pat's mail and was reprimanded twice for giving letters to Pat without Leslie knowing about it or reading it," Dempster says. "I was warned about that -- not to deliver any mail to Pat unless Leslie had read it."

Berlowitz points out that her assistants also work for Spacks, who is away for half of the year. "My assistant is asked to open the mail and see if there is anything that needs a direct and immediate response."

Dempster stayed at her job for barely half a year, Collins for less. "Working there was the most horrific experience I've had in my career," says Collins. "I saw people not bringing their best to work to her, knowing that whatever they did, she would cut it up and chew it out. She would put people on the carpet in front of other people. The woman is a beast."

"A lot of people don't like Leslie's style," says her supporter Kaysen. "A lot of the noise and sharp words that were exchanged at Irving Street arose because Leslie was trying to make orderly a process that was not orderly. I don't know if she did it with maximum tact."

At the end of a recent interview, Berlowitz pointed out to Kaysen that her seventh anniversary at the academy was just around the corner. "Maybe we should have a party," she mused. "A survival party."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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