Recording Academy Settles With Ousted President-CEO Deborah Dugan

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The Recording Academy and former president-CEO Deborah Dugan have reached a settlement in the arbitration surrounding her ouster, which took place just 10 days before the 2020 Grammys.

The two parties issued a joint statement Thursday night that says simply: “The Recording Academy and Deborah Dugan have agreed to resolve their differences and to keep the terms of their agreement private.” The arbitration hearings were scheduled to begin next month; Dugan’s attorney and reps for the Recording Academy declined Variety‘s requests for further comment.

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The move is the latest in a series led by Recording Academy chief Harvey Mason, jr. that reflect an effort to at least calm some of the multiple controversies that have arisen around it over the past few years, ranging from Dugan’s extremely hostile termination to her predecessor Neil Portnow’s 2018 comment that females in the music industry need to “step up” in order to advance. Among other moves, including the distribution of some $24 million in Covid relief to members of the music community, the organization’s efforts to address a longstanding lack of racial and gender diversity — which of course is true across the industry — have ramped up significantly over the past year. Reports of their effectiveness have been mixed, particularly for the inclusion task force that was formed in the wake of Portnow’s comment. However, Valeisha Butterfield Jones — who was named co-president earlier this week as part of a new management structure — made a number of positive moves in her prior, year-long role as the Academy’s first chief diversity & inclusion officer.

Dugan, who was abruptly placed on administrative leave from her post in January of 2020 after vague accusations of “misconduct” toward an employee sources say was her former assistant, was officially terminated three months later. Mason, then head of the Academy’s board of trustees, took her place on an interim basis and officially took over the post last month, although he had insisted the role would be temporary; some sources say that a long executive search by the Academy turned up no suitable candidates willing to take on the job. Regardless, during his tenure Mason has brought about a significant change of tone and action at the Academy, and the Dugan settlement is a positive move toward advancing that change further.

Despite a series of fiery statements and allegations about Dugan’s alleged conduct in the role, the Academy did not to specify what those “deficiencies and failures” were. Multiple sources tell Variety that while Dugan’s top-down management style — she had previously been CEO of (RED), the AIDS-relief charity founded by U2’s Bono and Bobby Shriver — was an awkward fit with the Academy’s slow, consensus-building, more traditionally non-profit processes, she was on the verge of making significant changes at the time of her termination, just days before her first Grammy Awards ceremony. Mason, who sources say had a largely positive relationship with Dugan during her tenure, has seen through many of the proposals that had been advanced during her term. Dugan discussed many of them in an interview with Variety just three weeks before she was placed on leave.

Dugan fiercely disputed the Academy’s version of events in a blockbuster legal complaint that accused the organization of multiple instances of misconduct, including improprieties in the Grammy voting procedure, “egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members… and a ‘boys’ club’ mentality”; “exorbitant” legal fees paid to outside law firms; and that attorney Joel Katz, an Academy executive affiliated with one of those law firms, had attempted to “woo” and kiss her. Her complaint also brought forth an earlier, anonymous accusation of sexual misconduct against her predecessor, Neil Portnow, but he firmly denied it and the Recording Academy said he had been exonerated after a third-party investigation.

Accusations of voting impropriety arose again after the 2021 nominations were announced and the Weeknd — whose “After Hours” was one of the most critically and commercially successful releases of the year — received no nominations. While the Academy steadfastly insisted that the decision had been made fair and square by the nominating committees that narrowed down the list of finalists — which Dugan had accused of “double dealing” — it also did away with nearly all of the committees at its most recent board meetings in May. The 2022 Grammys will be the first since 1989 in which the committees will play no part in making up the ballots of major awards, although they will still be used for 11 highly specialized categories like production and packaging.

Sources told Variety at the time that Dugan’s ouster was more of a “coup” by executives and officers at the Academy, who felt threatened by her agenda for change in the organization and disapproved of her management style. Dugan served in the role for just over five months.

Her complaint also stated that in January 2020 her attorneys and the Academy had nearly negotiated a peaceful exit, but disagreed over a severance amount — which sources say was initially $8 million, in line with her employment contract, but was abruptly withdrawn and replaced with a much smaller offer by the Academy. She was placed on administrative leave shortly afterward.

A March 2020 statement from Dugan read: “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? 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 color. Artists deserve better. To me, this is the real meaning of ‘stepping up.’”

In a statement, the Academy said in part: “Ms. Dugan’s consistent management deficiencies and failures, and other factors. All of this led the elected leaders of the Academy to conclude that it was in the best interests of the Academy to move on.”

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