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US Recording Academy formally sacks CEO Deborah Dugan

By | Published on Tuesday 3 March 2020

Deborah Dugan

The US Recording Academy has formally sacked its CEO Deborah Dugan. Given what the music industry organisation has said about its former boss, not to mention what the former boss has said about the music industry organisation, this development comes as no surprise whatsoever. Although her legal rep says that the way the Academy sacked his client is further proof that “it will stop at nothing to protect and maintain a culture of misogyny, discrimination, sexual harassment, corruption and conflicts of interest”.

Quick recap: Dugan was hired by the Academy last year with a brief to shake things up at the organisation and its annual Grammy Awards, in particular dealing with the diversity issues that had dogged the latter part of her predecessor’s tenure. But just before this year’s Grammys, Dugan was put on administrative leave by the Academy’s board. They said that they were responding to a complaint of bullying by a staff member against Dugan. She said that she was being pushed out because the Academy didn’t actually want to be shaken up.

Dugan then filed an explosive legal document with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In it she set out a long list of allegations against the Academy, its board, its committees and its legal advisors, who were variously accused of corruption, misogyny, financial self-serving, sexual harassment and vote fixing.

A side dispute then began over whether or not Dugan and the Academy could pursue their legal dispute in court. The latter insisted that the matter be handled via private mediation, as Dugan’s employment contract mandated. That process is now underway.

Meanwhile, the Academy instigated its own investigations into Dugan’s complaints and the complaints made against Dugan. It’s based on those investigations that the Academy board has now decided it is in a position to formally fire its CEO.

In a letter to the organisation’s members, the Academy’s board said their “exhaustive, costly independent investigations” were “carried out by experienced individuals with no prior relationship to the Academy”. Those investigators “interviewed a combined total of 37 witnesses and reviewed numerous relevant documents and emails”. The letter insists that the investigators had a free reign to investigate the allegations made on both sides.

The board then says that the decision to sack Dugan is based on those investigations, as well as the “unwarranted and damaging media campaign that she launched in an attempt, without justification, to derail the Grammy Awards show” and her “consistent management deficiencies and failures, and other factors”.

So, the tough talking remains on the Academy’s side. Even the logistical part of the letter – confirming that the search was now underway for a new CEO – manages to get a dig in against Dugan. The board writes: “As we structure this new search, we will look carefully to see where the last one led us astray and make any necessary changes going forward”.

Needless to say, the tough talking continues on the other side too. A legal rep for Dugan, Doug Wigdor, said in a statement: “The Academy’s decision to terminate Ms Dugan and immediately leak that information to the press further demonstrates that it will stop at nothing to protect and maintain a culture of misogyny, discrimination, sexual harassment, corruption and conflicts of interest. The decision is despicable and, in due course, the Academy, its leadership and its attorneys will be held accountable under the law”.

Meanwhile, Dugan herself said in a statement: “I was recruited and hired by the Recording Academy to make positive change; unfortunately, I was not able to do that as its CEO. While I am disappointed by this latest development, I am not surprised given the Academy’s pattern of dealing with whistleblowers”.

“Is anyone surprised that its purported investigations did not include interviewing me or addressing the greater claims of conflicts of interest and voting irregularities?”, she went on. “So, instead of trying to reform the corrupt institution from within, I will continue to work to hold accountable those who continue to self-deal, taint the Grammy voting process and discriminate against women and people of colour. Artists deserve better”.

It remains to be seen whether subsequent legal sparring between the Academy and Dugan keeps this story alive, or if the whole thing ultimately fizzles out. It may well depend, to an extent, on who the organisation hires to be its next CEO.

Certainly, for now, the Academy’s reputation remains incredibly tarnished, despite the organisation’s continued denials of any wrong-doing, and recent efforts to suggest that staff complaints against Dugan went beyond one executive assistant with close ties to former boss Neil Portnow.

It definitely feels that something more radical than open letters and off-the-record briefings are needed to convince people that Dugan’s portrayal of the Academy as an archaic and misogynistic body run by self-serving old-timers isn’t at least partly accurate.