The MBA or the MFA?

Good luck to Cathie Black, new appointed chancellor of the New York City Schools. She’ll need it. The Hearst Magazine head, who was handpicked by Mayor Bloomberg with nary a consultation of his inner circle, much less school officials, has stirred up more than her share of controversy. Parents, teachers, union reps and school administrators are alarmed that Black has absolutely no experience running a school district, or even working with one in any capacity. Some parents even responded by going to the Hearst Magazine headquarters with resumes in hand to apply for Black’s job. If she can be chancellor of the nation’s largest school district, they reason, surely we’re qualified to run a media conglomerate.

In truth, Bloomberg is faulted more than Black for the abrupt way his decision was reached. New York’s Mayor, a consummate, decisive businessman, turned to his own network to select a similarly business-minded executive. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory. In fact, it reminds me of the similar approach often seen in the arts world, where organizations seem to go through periods of reaching beyond the ranks of arts administrators for top jobs. The idea is that business acumen is a top priority in running successful nonprofits in today’s financial, fundraising and development climates.

This kind of relative outside-the-box thinking has its ardent supporters and detractors. I’ve worked with a CEO from outside the arts world who came in, shook things up organizationally, and got a lot of blame for his lack of true leadership, even as he implemented some real and lasting changes. A subsequent CEO, who came up through the ranks in arts administration, was a true believer that the idea of hiring an MBA over an MFA is nearly always a mistake, that one can learn about the business aspects of running an arts institution, but vital skills and knowledge related to the industry can only truly be understood through depth of experience. Similar scenarios have played out at arts groups across the country.

So I can understand Bloomberg’s choice of a business person to lead a complex and often-troubled school district. Yet at the same time, it’s been unnerving to hear Black say she needs some time to get up to speed on operations before she can respond to reporters’ questions. And disturbing that the waiver required from the State Education Commissioner for Black’s appointment, given that she has no educational background, was predicated on the hiring of a deputy chancellor who can basically assist with on-the-job training.

What, then, really matters most:  broadly applicable business/management skills, or in-the-trenches field experience? In the end, the arts organizations I’ve observed in different places have tended to pull back from their decision to hire outside the industry. Their initial infatuation with new business and management concepts has evaporated in the wake of sweeping, authoritarian changes that often follow. Conflicts have arisen with staff and board members over business vs. artistic-oriented strategies and direction; financial or operational decisions that made sense for the business world have not proven applicable to the arts; economic cycles have masked, or highlighted, problems with a new system. Disillusionment has set in; experimental approaches have been shelved in favor of concrete agendas.

All of which seems to argue for arts experience over a business skills approach, at least in times of economic turmoil when fewer organizations are in the mood to take chances. That’s the total opposite of Bloomberg’s decision to hand over NYC schools to a neophyte, albeit one who has serious boardroom cred. But as Black’s own measured response to the pending learning curve indicates, it’s tough to start a new job when the first task is to convince everyone that you can handle it.


(Update, 4.7.2010—Black has resigned as chancellor after a three-month tenure, reportedly at the request of Mayor Bloomberg, the very man who appointed her.)