Deborah Dugan’s Recording Academy Ouster Follows Multiple Tussles With Board

Jem Aswad

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“Change is afoot,” Deborah Dugan said more than once during interviews with Variety in the weeks before her shocking removal from her post as president/CEO of the Recording Academy after just five months on the job. During those conversations, Dugan spoke of changes she planned to make in the Academy’s staffing organization, its Board of Trustees and its reporting structure. She did not speak of conflict with the board or its staff that have resulted in her being placed on administrative leave after a “formal allegation of misconduct,” presumably as a prequel to her departure.

“I’m approaching everything with a beginners’ mind,” she told Variety in December. “I need to go through the Grammy process once to see it in its totality, and each step of the way I’m taking notes and starting to work on that change. It’s been good, although it’s not an easy job,” she laughed, “and there’s much to do, but I’m only getting good feedback and I feel really good about the direction.”

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Five weeks later, that assessment appears inaccurate, to put it mildly. While reports on this rapidly evolving situation vary widely — and there has been much speculation about the contents of a memo she sent to the Academy’s head of HR that sources say alleged financial mismanagement, exorbitant or unnecessary legal bills to outside attorneys, conflicts of interest and more — one thing is clear: Dugan ruffled feathers at the traditionally conservative Academy.

Her predecessor, Neil Portnow, had a calm, gentlemanly and old-school demeanor that contrasts with Dugan’s more hard-charging approach, Internet savvy and agenda for change. Insiders say that she could be impatient and dismissive, especially with staffers whom she felt were not able to keep up with her. Claudine Little, Portnow’s former assistant whom Dugan inherited, and who insiders say was the person to formally allege misconduct against her, was believed to have borne the brunt of some of that impatience and was seen “visibly upset” a few times. They also say that Dugan was difficult to get on the phone or for a meeting.

And perhaps most of all, she often was at odds not only with the Portnow loyalists remaining at the organization, but with the Board of Trustees that hired her and controls the Academy.

“There’s no scenario where the board would dismiss the CEO, 10 days before the Grammys, if it weren’t serious,” one insider said.

Yet others present a different take on the situation, noting that such behavior is certainly characteristic of many CEOs of large organizations, especially ones with the size and scope of the Academy and the Grammys. Dugan had a steep learning curve, had moved her family across the country, and was in the job for just five months before she was effectively dismissed. They also pointed to some staffers who “should have been fired a long time ago, but Neil kept around.”

One insider also speculated that Dugan may have suffered from the lack of a guide to assist her with navigating the nuances of the Academy’s complex power structure, although it’s also possible she may not have been concerned with them. And another insider pointed out that new Board chief Harvey Mason, Jr. — who has assumed Dugan’s responsibilities on an interim basis — was very supportive of her to the staff, and she spoke positively of him to Variety, saying “together we’re forging forward.”

Another Dugan defender who witnessed her attempts to reform the Academy describes her as having “good instincts”  and being “decisive,” in contrast to the notoriously waffling Portnow.

Still, others said, “The culture at the Academy is so entrenched and byzantine that it was probably very frustrating for her. You could say she was bossy or impatient — but she was impatient with incompetence.”

Another noted: “What’s the most effective way to get a new Grammy boss out of the way? Put them on leave ten days before the show and let people think the worst.”

Reps for Dugan and the Academy either declined or did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment.

It is worth noting that the Recording Academy had weathered previous scandals, particularly involving the organization’s financials. In 2018, charges were leveled against Portnow and his regime by Dana Tomarken, longtime head of the Academy’s charity division MusiCares, who was abruptly fired reportedly over an unpaid $3,000 debt, after 25 years with in the job. She sued the Academy, amid accusations of some disastrous financial decisions by Portnow, alleging wrongful termination, sex and age discrimination, and retaliation; the case was settled under Dugan’s watch last fall.

By contrast, the largesse of the Academy’s board is a thing of legend, complete with all-expense-paid retreats to Hawaii and first-class airfare. Dugan was hell bent on reducing costs, starting with the fees paid for business management and legal counsel. More of an impasse was her desire for increased transparency about the voting process.

Dugan reflected some of the issues in an interview with Variety last month. “Things here are about access to the top,” she said. “But I operate with agile teams and I could give a f— about hierarchy. It shouldn’t be about access to me. It should be ‘I’m going to empower you. Here’s your team and here’s your money.’”

While she said that she was viewing her first Grammy season with “beginner’s eyes” and taking it in before making significant decisions, the changes to the Academy’s Board of Trustees were based on a strongly worded, 47-page report filed by the Recording Academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which was released last month. Helmed by former first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Tina Tchen, the Task Force was formed in the wake of the “Step up” controversy that followed the 2018 Grammy Awards and threw the Academy’s issues of gender and racial diversity into stark relief.

The report laid out a number of sweeping recommendations for changes throughout the Academy and the industry at large, including restructuring and setting diversity goals for its Board of Trustees to “ensure that music creators from the broadest range of ages, backgrounds, genders, genres, crafts, and regions are fully represented within the organization’s leadership,” ensuring gender parity on Awards and Governance committees, publicly reporting on the demographic composition of its workforce, and increasing outreach to diverse communities. At various points, the report says that the Academy’s governance and nomination-review committees “had historically not been comprised of diverse members,” and that its board of directors “is not diverse, is not independent, and is perceived by some underrepresented members (and non-members in the music industry) as out of touch.” (Read the full report here.) Of the 18 recommended actions, Dugan had implemented 17 of them.

She told Variety last month, “The big takeaway from the report and our actions is restructuring the board, which hasn’t happened in 62 years, and the transparency that’s coming from the Recording Academy, the clear setting of goals and being accountable for those goals — the changes that must happen immediately to implement diversity and inclusivity at every committee.”

She also spoke of changes in the structure of the Academy’s staffing, including bringing in an in-house lawyer; for many years the Academy has relied on outside counsel, primarily veteran music industry attorneys Joel Katz and Chuck Ortner, both of whom worked closely with Portnow. Clearly, she planned to have a wide remit.

“I think we might need a few new, senior people — right now I have too many direct reports,” she told Variety last month. “I’m leaning toward bringing in a COO. In the beginning, people were like, well, ‘Maybe there’d be a COO that would handle more of the creative side of things,’ but I think it would be to keep the trains running so I could have more time to be out meeting with tech companies and creatives in the industry, looking at sponsorship and a revenue model, looking at the awards process. And then we might look at additive positions, for example a diversity officer, and we’re going out very soon for a MusiCares executive director (to replace Tomarken).

“We’re also going out very soon for an in-house lawyer — they have not had one, which is mind-boggling to me.”

More quietly she had been reaching out to artists who, outwardly or otherwise, have felt alienated or under-represented by the Grammys in recent years. While she declined to name names, acts at the top of that long list include some of the biggest stars in music: Jay-Z, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Kendrick Lamar.

“I spent my first month in the job, and even before I started, talking one-on-one with dissenters — actually, that’s probably not the right word for them,” she clarifies. “I mean people we might have lost, or who had a bad experience or didn’t feel like they were relevant. I’d go to their studios and talk to them there, and not in my office. I don’t feel they have to come to us if they want to vote and change things — I feel like the onus is on us to go to them. And I have their voices in my head.”

Apparently, it was all for naught. After a year that has seen two changes at the top of the Recording Academy, whoever ends up in charge next will have a steep hill to climb in order to restore stability.

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