Any C.E.O. Will Do, Really.

America never seems to suffer from a lack of corporate types — Ross Perot, Mitt Romney, Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, etc. — who seem to think their boardroom expertise will translate into political success and effective policy.  This may not make a whole lot of sense — there are constraints and concerns on public-sector bureaucrats that don’t exist for CEO types, and vice versa— but it hasn’t stopped folks from making that pitch anyway.

It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising that New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, buys into this logic, being a wealthy business-type himself and similarly afflicted with a CEO’s boundless self-regard. But man, does his choice to run the city’s schools have anything to recommend her for that post besides being cakey and having run a bunch of meetings?

Cathleen P. Black earned a reputation in publishing as a tough-minded chief executive who never left her employees guessing what she wanted. A student of management, she wrote a book about strategies for success in the corporate world. She thrived as head of a large media company, showing little interest in politics or a public-service job — until, it seems, a big one suddenly opened up.

In other words, she is a lot like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who on Tuesday tapped Ms. Black, 66, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, to be the next chancellor of the New York City school system.

Mr. Bloomberg, of course, also built his fortune in media and wrote a book about how he did it. And no one would ever accuse the mayor of being ambiguous when it comes to conveying his expectations of his staff. Ms. Black, at the news conference on Tuesday where she was introduced, made no pretense of having any experience in education. Similarly, Mr. Bloomberg was a political novice when he ran for mayor in 2001. His explanation for picking her sounded a lot like his original pitch for himself: “Cathie is a world-class manager.”

Ms. Black, who was displaced this summer as president of Hearst Magazines, said that she was “very excited about this incredible opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our young people.”

At the risk of being overly flip, this is kinda like saying that Diddy should run NASA because he oversaw a successful record label. To some extent, anyone in her spot would be learning on the job. With a total enrollment of a million kids and a budget of $23 billion, New York City’s school system is a larger entity than most American cities. It’s not the kind of gig that many people, even those with considerable experience in education policy or government,  are really prepared for.  But her resume in public-sector work and education are more or less nonexistent. (During her introductory press conference — which came as a shock to a lot of her new charges — Black was asked if she had any meaningful experience dealing with unions. She mentioned she had some while she was at Hearst, but not really. Good luck dealing with the teacher’s union.)

It’d be nice if people acknowledged that policy and politics — particularly as it pertains to the complicated and toweringly important business of educating inner-city kids — might actually require a skillset that Mr. Spacely might not  have.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • tedra

    I so want to make the “Diddy should run ___ because he ran a successful record label” a meme.

  • Leigh

    This post is helpful, but I’m still mystified behind this choice, as well as why Klein stepped down in the first place. This does seem like a truly bizarre pick – if she has kids, is she at least active in their schools?

    The lack of experience w/the unions is a huge issue.

    • she *does* have kids, although they both went to private schools. she also sat on a board of a charter school organization.

  • R.A.B.

    Kinda wanna make dispute the claim that Puffy oversees a successful record label. Dude makes bank, okay, but 95 percent of his artists have been cast into the negaverse.

  • Yeah I thought that was a rather random appointment myself.