What the Paul Levy saga says about the city’s most powerful institutions.
SO HOW IS LEVY’S survival a distinctly Boston story? This is a city where memories are long, connections are deep, and major nonprofits are run mainly by white men with the wealth and civic commitment to forgo compensation for the prestige of charitable oversight. In many places, nonprofit organizations hire professional search firms to identify candidates qualified to assume the duties of a trustee. Here, the same familiar faces turn up again and again around those polished mahogany tables. Stephen B. Kay, chairman of the BIDMC board, must need a personal assistant just to remind him when each of the boards he serves on is convening: BIDMC, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brandeis University, and any one of the five Harvard-related panels on which he has served, or is now serving.
The revolving door between government service and the private sector in Boston also means colleagues at places like BIDMC are likely to have professional and personal ties that predate their current employment. That six degrees of separation can be beneficial, greasing the wheels to get things done. But that insularity also has a cost. In a city teeming with overcredentialed and underemployed lawyers, could BIDMC’s board of directors really find no one else to conduct its internal investigation of Levy than Robert Sherman, an attorney who sits on its own board of trustees?
For its part, MIT has not even bothered to comment on Levy’s unorthodox approach to academic mentoring, and he continues to sit on that university’s board of trustees. It is a perch that proved especially useful last year, when the rumors finally forced him to broom Mohamed from her $104,000 sinecure at Beth Israel’s Needham campus. She is now program administrator at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, a job she got, Levy has acknowledged, after he “made a call.” (Says MIT spokesperson Patti Richards, “MIT does not comment on personnel hiring issues.”)
Maybe MIT president Susan Hockfield does not cringe at the acknowledgments page of Mohamed’s 2001 master’s thesis in city planning that thanks MIT — “my home, and the place of extraordinary encounters” — as well as “Paul Levy, my advisor, role model, and friend, for teaching me some of my most valuable lessons, for your friendship and inspiration, for listening, and for teaching me to follow my heart.”
Hockfield should. Levy was a part-time adjunct when he took Mohamed under his wing. The relationship was apparently so inspiring that in 2006 the university featured them as role models at a panel discussion about mentoring. In January 2007 an issue of MIT’s Technology Review included an account of the pair’s relationship titled the “New Face of Mentoring”: “After seeking classmates’ advice and attending a few of Levy’s classes, [Mohamed] introduced herself and asked him to advise her. He became a friend as well as a powerful role model and ultimately recruited her to work at Beth Israel. Mohamed’s initiative paid off, said Levy, who added that if you’re seeking a mentor, you should pay attention to subtle hints that people are interested in nurturing you professionally.”
But are close personal friendships how teachers at MIT mentor their students? If not, why has there been no review of fraternization policies and no censure of Levy, a guy who has, at the very least, ensured that the success of one talented female MIT graduate will be credited as much to his interventions as to her competence? Why is he still a trustee? (MIT’s Richards would only say that his five-year term ends on June 30, 2011.) As the report from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office on BIDMC’s handling of the Levy affair noted, “the predictable and unfortunate result of combining personal and professional relationships within a workplace environment means decisions made regarding the employee’s hiring, transfer, pay, bonuses, and performance reviews will always be subject to the perception they may have been influenced as much by the personal relationship with Levy as by her own professional performance.” In other words, her reputation suffers as much as his.