Cantor Arts Center head is asked to leave

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 said 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 Palo Alto 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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