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The Real Problem With Cathie Black

No one can deny that arts and educational organizations are complex and need good management. But leaders should embody the essence of the mission with passion, courage and creativity.
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The recent appointment of Catherine Black as Chancellor of New York City schools has ignited a firestorm of protest.

Black's appointment is just the latest expression of the surrender of America's educational system to corporate interests and mores. Educational policy is increasingly affected by the heavy purses of folks like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, both of whom use philanthropy as a sledgehammer to weaken unions, privatize schools and further advance the culture of data-driven pedagogy.

Broad, in a recent Huffington Post column, defended Black's appointment by citing the alleged successes of non-educators in superintendent roles. Most were prominent business managers, although Broad included two-star Air Force general, John Barry. Among those cited was Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who presided over Chicago public schools despite his own lack of educational experience. He never taught or served as school administrator either. He was appointed to a private charter school initiative by an investment banker and subsequently received a political appointment within the Chicago public system, rising to CEO in 2001. Objective reports have characterized his tenure as a failure. As in many districts around the nation, initial reports of improved scores during Duncan's tenure were later discredited when it was discovered that the alleged rise in scores was actually due to a drop in standards.

It is rather humorous that Bloomberg et al. cite the importance of management skills as a way of justifying Black's appointment. The process, or more accurately, the lack of process was an object lesson in how not to manage an organization. A good manager knows that the selection of a leader should be an inclusive process. A good manager knows that anyone appointed in secret, without consultation with constituents, peers and subordinates, will face an uphill battle to win the good faith and support of those on whom success will depend. It doesn't mean hiring is a democratic process. But Bloomberg put Black, completely apart from her qualifications or lack thereof, squarely behind the eight-ball as she begins her tenure. That's lousy management.

But I digress. Perhaps the most objectionable aspect of the corporate takeover of public education is the implicit assumption that business leaders know what they're doing and the rest of us don't. Broad and others argue that school systems are large, complex organizations and that folks like Duncan and Barry are the only ones equipped to manage them.

This distorted value system infected higher education and the arts many decades ago. With a dwindling number of exceptions, colleges and universities have turned to "managers" as presidents. Not surprisingly, trustees of educational institutions are disproportionately selected from the corporate world too, because schools need the financial resources they can provide. The circle is completed when they appoint a leader with their values and their experience because, of course, their wealth proves their wisdom. Among the consequences has been the erosion of tenure, the decline of intellectualism, the proliferation of consumer-driven curricula and the obscene accumulation of institutional wealth.

Orchestra administrators, museum directors and other arts leadership positions are increasingly held by managers too, not musicians or artists. The same ill logic is used as justification: These are complex organizations and the fluff-brained, impractical artsy folks simply can't handle the job. Two frightening, albeit minor, examples of the ramifications of this trend were reported in Thursday's New York Times. The 92nd Street Y refunded ticket prices to "consumers" who thought an interview with actor/writer/comedian Steve Martin was too "high-art" for their tastes. And the Director of the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) took down part of an exhibit because Republicans and the Catholic League deemed it anti-Catholic. The Director said it was not in the Smithsonian's interests to "pick fights." I might suggest that it is an artist's obligation to pick fights.

The primary problem with Cathie Black is not her lack of credentials, it is the lack of evidence that she has intellectual heft or has any sophisticated understanding of the philosophical, psychological or biological considerations that should inform good educational practice. She is an assertive, wealthy, politically-savvy manager who has dedicated her life to rather common, commercial, profit-making enterprises. She has shown no evidence of interest in or commitment to social justice or beauty.

No one can deny that arts and educational organizations are complex and need good management. But leaders should embody the essence of the mission with passion, courage and creativity. Brilliant scholars and artists are a precious resource. Good managers are a dime a dozen. Management of an institution should be in service of a grand and uncompromising vision, not sacrificed to formulaic strategic plans, prudent fiscal policy and endless quibbling over "metrics". We're in the process of managing our most important institutions, including the public education system, to death.