Massachusetts’ residents justifiably take pride in our reputation for educational excellence. We host some of the leading educational institutions in the country and our public schools routinely post the nation’s top scores. However, our public universities and schools are comparatively disadvantaged when it comes to selecting leaders.
Our well-intentioned Open Meeting Law, with its strict provisions for conducting public business with the greatest possible transparency, generally serves us well in the public sector. However, it does, unintentionally, create problems when its provisions apply to searches for educational leaders like superintendents of schools and presidents of universities.
Current and recent searches for a Boston Public Schools superintendent or a new president of the University of Massachusetts have already or will soon illustrate the difficulty in attracting top candidates to a process in which they are required to make their candidacies public. A major portion of the pool of desirable candidates for top leadership positions like these should be people currently occupying similar positions, leaders already doing the work in comparable organizations, proven executives with successful track records. However, such leaders are typically serving at the pleasure of boards who are never pleased to learn that their successful CEOs are taking an interest in a new job. Consequently, many potential top candidates who might otherwise be interested in being considered for a position will refuse to participate in a Massachusetts process which discloses their candidacy.
During the last search for a UMass president, I found that such a revelation can sometimes cost an incumbent his job, a raise, fund-raising opportunities, and the confidence of his board and community. Naturally, candidates are reluctant to take such great risks if they can only be guaranteed to be one of several candidates for a position. Furthermore, top executives, whether current or recent leaders, often seek a mandate from a mayor or a board to do a job. They want to be sought after, just like accomplished corporate CEOs, and specially invited to a community to apply their particular talents to meet that community’s educational challenges. They want to be chosen.
There are ways to honor the laudable transparency intent of the law and still create the strongest possible pool of candidates. In this age of mayoral control of school systems, mayors in other jurisdictions can choose a school superintendent and still be held accountable to the voters for that choice. In Boston, that can’t be done, but in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel can appoint his superintendent just as Mayor Bill de Blasio can in New York. Alternatively, boards, such as the University of Maryland Board that recently hired away current UMass President Bob Caret can operate under an exemption from a comparable open meeting law to allow such searches to seek and appoint top candidates who would otherwise not be willing to run the risks of making their candidacies public.
The Massachusetts Legislature could adopt an amendment to the Open Meeting Law which would allow searches for public education leaders to proceed without the need to disclose the names of candidates or, at least, not disclose a name until a single finalist is chosen. In this way, the privacy and interests of top candidates would be protected while public boards would have a much broader and typically stronger, more experienced field of candidates from which to choose the ultimate leader. This is what happens elsewhere and not having such provisions in Massachusetts prevents us from developing the kind of deep, broad pools of first-class candidates we need to lead our schools and universities effectively in the future.
We are fond of touting our world-class, education systems, but such systems require world-class leadership. Right now, Massachusetts has one hand tied behind its back in the all important quest to attract top leadership. The Legislature should find a way to preserve the intent of the law, while allowing public education boards and mayors to attract and select the very best candidates available.
Paul Reville is a professor of practice of policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also leads the Education Redesign Lab, an initiative designed to re-envision 21st-century education. He is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Education.