GUEST COLUMN: Open Schenectady superintendent search process conflicts with finding best candidate

Roger Hull
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Roger Hull

By Roger H. Hull
For The Daily Gazette

Oil and water don’t mix.

Neither do open searches and experienced leadership.

So, in reading about the search for a new Schenectady City Schools superintendent, I was not surprised there were problems.

I believe in openness whenever possible, but I think it unreasonable to expect an experienced leader, at least a sitting superintendent, to participate in an open search process.

Another local search, this one decades ago, underscores my strongly held belief.

There, the search had the same goals—openness and experience—that quickly conflicted.

Like the superintendent search, that search was meant to be open.

The committee had decided to bring finalists before different groups to answer questions, although candidates were never told that was the way the process would work.

However, the committee also wanted an experienced leader. And that presented a problem.

When the time came for finalists to meet with those groups, one finalist withdrew from the search. For him, the idea of public meetings was, given the circumstances, unreasonable.

I know. I was that candidate.

When the chairman of the board called to invite me to attend open campus meetings, I was amazed. No one had mentioned that before.

The chairman said, though, the committee was down to four candidates and wanted any interested person to have a chance to meet them.

While I definitely wanted the job, I had no interest in throwing away the job I had.

While I obviously had no idea who the other candidates were, I was certain none was a sitting college president, as I was at the time.

No one at the college I was serving expected me to stay there forever. However, in my mind, there was a major difference between people not expecting me to stay and knowing I was interviewing for another position.

The board chairman held to his position; so did I.

He explained the process adopted by the committee was the right one for the college, and I couldn’t (and of course didn’t) argue with him. I simply wished him well and told him I was withdrawing from the search.

A bit stunned, the chairman asked me to reconsider.

I explained why I couldn’t and why I was fairly certain the other finalists were not college presidents (I was right).

I did tell him, though, if the other candidates proved not to be the right fit, I would be happy to talk again.

Less than a month later, the board chairman called me, told me the committee felt the other candidates were, in fact, not the right fit, and asked me to come to campus to meet with a range of people.

I agreed to do so on the condition the job was mine if my wife and I liked what we saw, unless the committee discovered problems in my past that would disqualify me.

When the chairman agreed, I immediately booked a flight.

Later that week, I was appointed president of Union College.

My search 31 years ago is relevant, I believe, to today’s superintendent search.

While both an open search process and a person with prior superintendent experience are valid objectives, these goals conflict.

A person who wants to ascend to a superintendent position, a principal or an assistant superintendent, for example, must be willing to undergo public scrutiny. In my view, though, sitting superintendents, at least those who are doing their job well, simply cannot afford to do so.

Sure, some superintendents will happily participate in an open search process.

A superintendent who is retiring or a community that wants that person to move on (Eric Ely and Larry Spring come to mind) would have no problem dealing with an open search.

As for other superintendents, an open process presents serious challenges. If a sitting superintendent is sought, therefore, the process needs to be adjusted.

Everyone in Schenectady wants the right person for the superintendent position.

All should recognize, though, objectives sometimes conflict.

The search committee, school board, community and press need to decide what is most important — an open search process or finding the most experienced person.

Both goals are clearly reasonable, but they, like oil and water, don’t mix.

Dr. Roger H. Hull is president emeritus of Union College and president of the Help Yourself Win Foundation in Schenectady.

Categories: Guest Column, Opinion

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