News

Cantor Arts Center head is asked to leave

After investigation into a 'toxic workplace' at museum, Susan Dackerman to step down

UPDATE: On Nov. 23, Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell and Maude Brezinski were named interim co-directors of the Cantor Arts Center, Matthew Tiews, interim senior associate vice president for the Arts said in a statement. Mitchell is the Cantor's Burton and Deedee McMurtry curator and Brezinski is the executive director of development for the arts.

"Together, Elizabeth and Maude are well positioned to guide the museum's artistic and scholarly excellence and engagement with our community as we seek permanent leadership," Tiews said.

Susan Dackerman became Cantor Art Center's director in September 2017. Courtesy Stanford University.

Following an external investigation into workplace problems at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, Susan Dackerman, the director of the museum since September 2017, is stepping down, an email from Stanford University stated Wednesday, Nov. 18.

No date for her departure or explanation of the situation that led to Dackerman's exit was given in the message from Matthew Tiews, the interim senior associate vice president for the arts and associate vice president for campus engagement. However, Tiews wrote, "The university will be addressing internal concerns and structural considerations so that the museum is best positioned for success going forward."

Deputy Director and Chief of Staff James Gaddy is also leaving his job at the museum, according to an email sent to museum staff and obtained by this news organization.

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Allegations that Dackerman led a "toxic workplace" surfaced this summer when the resignation letter from Director of Academic and Public Programs Peter Tokofsky became public. In it, he told the 20-member Director's Advisory Board that the exodus of one-quarter of the museum staff and two of the four-person leadership team needed the board's attention.

"I have spoken with many of those who left, and they cite difficulties with leadership and, generally, the 'toxic workplace' of the Cantor as their reasons for leaving," his letter stated.

He said Dackerman asked for his resignation due to allegedly poor performance, but Tokofsky in his letter cited his many accomplishments in his year at the museum, including an increase in Stanford class visits by 35% and numerous new partnerships with Stanford departments and faculty.

The Stanford Daily detailed additional allegations of a fraught workplace culture in an article it published in August.

According to a list of staff departures obtained by this news organization, at least 14 people departed from Cantor in 2019-2020, including those in curatorial, exhibitions, events, special projects, collection, communications, security and membership. At least another 16 left between 2017, when Dackerman arrived, and 2019, including those in development, visitor services, conservation.

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In an email dated October 2019, one departing employee wrote to her colleagues at Cantor:

"I wanted you to hear from me first that I have resigned from my position and proposed my last day for November 1st. ... I am leaving to escape the unfortunate toxicity of our work environment."

Tiews, in a message obtained by the Weekly and sent to staff on July 17, 2020, said the Office of the Vice President for the Arts and Cantor management had "received notice of concerns about work environments at the Cantor. ... As you know, Stanford University is committed to a culture of respect for students, faculty, staff, volunteers, supporters and visitors, and we take these claims very seriously."

He added that at Dackerman's request and after consulting with appropriate campus offices, the university engaged an independent outside investigator to review the specific concerns and related issues as they arise. He instructed staff not to respond to the media and to refer reporters to Robin Wander in Stanford Communications.

In an undated statement to the Stanford Daily obtained by the Weekly, Tiews noted that within months of hiring Dackerman in 2017, "the director and deputy director recognized they need to invite experts in organizational development to provide guidance to advance the organization" through analysis, trainings and group meetings.

"As the team and its work culture continue to develop, significant progress is being made to establish a positive, inclusive and healthy work environment that promotes respect and high performance," he wrote in part.

In his Nov. 18 statement, Tiews said that the university is forming a transition team to continue the work of the museum after Dackerman leaves.

"A transition team consisting of key museum contributors will be installed, with oversight from the leader of the Vice Presidency for the Arts and the Dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences. Members of the transition team will be named shortly," Tiews said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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Cantor Arts Center head is asked to leave

After investigation into a 'toxic workplace' at museum, Susan Dackerman to step down

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Nov 18, 2020, 8:33 pm
Updated: Mon, Nov 23, 2020, 4:57 pm

UPDATE: On Nov. 23, Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell and Maude Brezinski were named interim co-directors of the Cantor Arts Center, Matthew Tiews, interim senior associate vice president for the Arts said in a statement. Mitchell is the Cantor's Burton and Deedee McMurtry curator and Brezinski is the executive director of development for the arts.

"Together, Elizabeth and Maude are well positioned to guide the museum's artistic and scholarly excellence and engagement with our community as we seek permanent leadership," Tiews said.

Following an external investigation into workplace problems at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, Susan Dackerman, the director of the museum since September 2017, is stepping down, an email from Stanford University stated Wednesday, Nov. 18.

No date for her departure or explanation of the situation that led to Dackerman's exit was given in the message from Matthew Tiews, the interim senior associate vice president for the arts and associate vice president for campus engagement. However, Tiews wrote, "The university will be addressing internal concerns and structural considerations so that the museum is best positioned for success going forward."

Deputy Director and Chief of Staff James Gaddy is also leaving his job at the museum, according to an email sent to museum staff and obtained by this news organization.

Allegations that Dackerman led a "toxic workplace" surfaced this summer when the resignation letter from Director of Academic and Public Programs Peter Tokofsky became public. In it, he told the 20-member Director's Advisory Board that the exodus of one-quarter of the museum staff and two of the four-person leadership team needed the board's attention.

"I have spoken with many of those who left, and they cite difficulties with leadership and, generally, the 'toxic workplace' of the Cantor as their reasons for leaving," his letter stated.

He said Dackerman asked for his resignation due to allegedly poor performance, but Tokofsky in his letter cited his many accomplishments in his year at the museum, including an increase in Stanford class visits by 35% and numerous new partnerships with Stanford departments and faculty.

The Stanford Daily detailed additional allegations of a fraught workplace culture in an article it published in August.

According to a list of staff departures obtained by this news organization, at least 14 people departed from Cantor in 2019-2020, including those in curatorial, exhibitions, events, special projects, collection, communications, security and membership. At least another 16 left between 2017, when Dackerman arrived, and 2019, including those in development, visitor services, conservation.

In an email dated October 2019, one departing employee wrote to her colleagues at Cantor:

"I wanted you to hear from me first that I have resigned from my position and proposed my last day for November 1st. ... I am leaving to escape the unfortunate toxicity of our work environment."

Tiews, in a message obtained by the Weekly and sent to staff on July 17, 2020, said the Office of the Vice President for the Arts and Cantor management had "received notice of concerns about work environments at the Cantor. ... As you know, Stanford University is committed to a culture of respect for students, faculty, staff, volunteers, supporters and visitors, and we take these claims very seriously."

He added that at Dackerman's request and after consulting with appropriate campus offices, the university engaged an independent outside investigator to review the specific concerns and related issues as they arise. He instructed staff not to respond to the media and to refer reporters to Robin Wander in Stanford Communications.

In an undated statement to the Stanford Daily obtained by the Weekly, Tiews noted that within months of hiring Dackerman in 2017, "the director and deputy director recognized they need to invite experts in organizational development to provide guidance to advance the organization" through analysis, trainings and group meetings.

"As the team and its work culture continue to develop, significant progress is being made to establish a positive, inclusive and healthy work environment that promotes respect and high performance," he wrote in part.

In his Nov. 18 statement, Tiews said that the university is forming a transition team to continue the work of the museum after Dackerman leaves.

"A transition team consisting of key museum contributors will be installed, with oversight from the leader of the Vice Presidency for the Arts and the Dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences. Members of the transition team will be named shortly," Tiews said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Comments

Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:17 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:17 pm
23 people like this

Wow, just wow. I have no idea what happened, but the language above is a lot of obfuscation, a lot of blather!


TorreyaMan
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Nov 19, 2020 at 11:14 am
TorreyaMan, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 11:14 am
22 people like this

I am a Stanford grad and have been a Cantor supporter for quite a few years. I am ashamed of this university, which appears to have let this situation stew for three years. Such a huge staff turnover for such a relatively small institution (the Cantor) should have resulted in action much sooner than now.


JB
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2020 at 11:41 am
JB, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 11:41 am
8 people like this

Wow! I had no idea that this was going on. We love to visit this small gem of a museum. I just read the Stanford Daily article provided as a link in the article above, and it was very well written and informative. I really hope that Stanford does a better job in the future of hiring people at this museum who show more respect to their employees. Good luck!


What Will They Do Next
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 19, 2020 at 2:52 pm
What Will They Do Next, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 2:52 pm
21 people like this

When one quarter of the staff and two members of the leadership team leave, you know the exodus comes as a result of the person at the top. Too bad Stanford waited this long.


lets-do-the-numbers
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 19, 2020 at 4:33 pm
lets-do-the-numbers, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 4:33 pm
2 people like this

Cantor is a true gem. I hope it remains that way. Quick comments here: it's easy to ascribe high turnover to bad / toxic management. It's also easy to twist that number into a negative story. In truth, we scarcely know the individual stories behind departures. With unemployment stats clocking in at their lowest rates in 50 years just before the pandemic, it's entirely plausible people left simply because they got better salaries elsewhere. Surely it is important not to discount reports of a toxic workplace, but those kind of reports have to be measured against the context in which they are made.


Dog
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 19, 2020 at 4:43 pm
Dog, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 4:43 pm
11 people like this

Who protected her and allowed this toxicity to last for much too long? I am afraid more are responsible and should be shown the door as well.


Hulkamania
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 20, 2020 at 10:58 am
Hulkamania, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2020 at 10:58 am
5 people like this

This is typical of most organizations. First employee leaves and it's either sour grapes or they found a better job.

Second employee leaves and some questions may be asked but manager tells upper management all is good so, because they've got better things to do than get involved in HR issues, they forget it.

Third employee leaves and now real questions start getting asked. Meanwhile, the organization has lost multiple good people that they really, in hindsight, couldn't afford to lose.


Glad to be out of that hellhole
Registered user
Stanford
on Nov 21, 2020 at 2:35 am
Glad to be out of that hellhole, Stanford
Registered user
on Nov 21, 2020 at 2:35 am
9 people like this

It’s hard not to be baited by comments like the one suggesting that the entire premise of the article and the first hand accounts cited are not real.

As a former employee of the Cantor, I can attest that it has been toxic for many years.

Even prior to Susan Dackerman and James Gaddy, a mass exodus occurred as a result of the toxic management of prior director Connie Wolf, who once literally yelled at a donor in the museum lobby (among countless other sins).

The real story here is not that things were actually that toxic. They were.

It’s why upper management at Stanford and countless other institutions are so resistant to believing and acting on employee feedback that could not only prevent things from escalating to this level, but actually improve organizations.


Lee Forrest
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 21, 2020 at 7:13 am
Lee Forrest, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 21, 2020 at 7:13 am
25 people like this

>"Even prior to Susan Dackerman and James Gaddy, a mass exodus occurred as a result of the toxic management of prior director Connie Wolf, who once literally yelled at a donor in the museum lobby (among countless other sins).

^ Since departmental 'toxity' has been a recurrent factor, don't those who do the hiring of directors bear some responsibility for certain oversights?


dontliveinCA
Registered user
another community
on Nov 24, 2020 at 2:33 pm
dontliveinCA, another community
Registered user
on Nov 24, 2020 at 2:33 pm
Like this comment

Well, I hope this gets resolved. I live on the east coast, but when I visit CA (have kids there) I always look forward to a visit to the Cantor and also the Anderson Collection....a few years ago I had a great guided tour of the Anderson.....there were only like 5 of us on the tour (must have been a holiday week or something).....so there was ample opportunity for dialogue between the guide and visitors.....very fond memories of that experience


Cat
Registered user
Mountain View
on Nov 25, 2020 at 12:22 am
Cat, Mountain View
Registered user
on Nov 25, 2020 at 12:22 am
Like this comment

According to the linked article in the Stanford Daily, the director of communications was also named as a a primary contributor to the toxic environment at Cantor. I hope she doesn’t escape accountability for her role as it sounds like she was an active participant. If true she should also exit so Cantor can truly have a clean start.


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