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DIA recording illustrates consequences of lax oversight

A secret recording landed the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) on the front page of the New York Times . The recording of a DIA board meeting last November captures the outcome of an internal investigation of racism, sexism, lax oversight and cultural toxicity at the DIA.

The DIA’s problems started last summer when a non-profit law firm, Whistleblower Aid, fielded anonymous complaints that the museum was not following its established lending processes. The complaint also reported a large number of women who had left the DIA and consistently lax oversight by the DIA Board. Employees alleged, among other things, that the director of the museum even conducted his own performance review.

It also alleged that the director allowed an El Greco painting – which his father owned – to hang in a DIA gallery. The painting, the complaint alleged, would increase in value if a major museum displayed it. The “anonymous loan” created an unaddressed financial conflict of interest for the museum’s director, whose family would benefit financially from the display.

Based on the complaint, the Board hired the Crowell & Moring law firm last summer to investigate. The firm presented its findings to the Board in November. Someone secretly recorded it and turned the recordings over to the New York Times.

Public institutions cannot survive lax oversight

Crowell and Moring said that a culture of fear and retaliation existed inside the museum. The director demoted and excluded staff who disagreed with him. Female employees resigned in large numbers. They claimed that the director viewed them less favorably and paid themmless than their male counterparts. The report also found that the Board provided only minimal oversight over the museum director. Lax oversight enabled irregularities like race-based hiring decisions.

Following the report, the Board created a process by which employees could communicate directly to the Board. The Board also hired a diversity and inclusion consultancy to assess conditions for the staff. Additionally, the Board hired a leadership coach for the museum director.

This is what happens when the Board of a public institution takes a hands-off approach to administrative oversight. It’s one thing to stay out of an organization’s day-to-day operations. It’s another to just sit back and relax while the kitchen is on fire.

Like WCC, the DIA is publicly funded. The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers who support the museum. Unfortunately, DIA employees had to engage a law firm to get the Board’s attention. How disengaged is a Board that can’t even conduct a performance review of the executive they left running unattended?

Worse, their law firm substantiated reports of the director’s illegal hiring practices. Hiring discrimination creates significant and compensable liabilities to the museum. Rather than fire their boy, they hired consultants and coaches instead.

Authentic Board oversight – real honest-to-God oversight – is critical for publicly funded institutions. When the Board provides only lax oversight, despite ample evidence of mounting problems at the institution they’re supposed to be overseeing, the Board becomes the problem.

Photo Credit: State Farm , via Flickr