Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1765908
As some of you know, I am spending this academic year as an interim library leader. Has it changed my work life? You bet. Instead of being the leader of a collection of inanimate objects, paintings and rare books, and the occasional historian for my colleagues in archives, I'm now the boss of myself while leading a department of seven. One of my charges is to ready our team for the hiring process that will take place in 2021 when we seek a permanent leader.
While there are pieces of this process that are organizational--which search firms to use, adding voices and layers to the interview process, having job description language checked for bias, eliminating implicit bias from the interview process--there are also details that belong to us. Those need to be unpacked before the process begins in earnest. This is not our first rodeo. We began in 2018 believing we could hire a two-year interim, someone who would offer us 24 months of stability while we got our house in order. It worked a decade earlier, but this time, no one wanted the job. We began again in 2019, only to be interrupted by the pandemic, ultimately stopping the search while travel and our organization shut down. Now we're on the cusp of beginning again.
As a staff and as an organization we are committed to DEI. Last summer we wrote an Anti-Racist statement coupled with a programmatic action list. Yet, when we were asked recently whether we would consider someone without a master's in library science as a way to make hiring more inclusive, there was a degree of consternation and pushback. Why? Well, probably lots of reasons from the most subjective--I struggled to get this degree, why should a director receive the big salary and perquisites when they didn't--to concerns that someone without the degree literally wouldn't understand the workings of an academic library, archives and special collections. And yet, the degree is a barrier. It is expensive, and in most cases, it teaches content not leadership. Too much content knowledge can plunge a leader into a this-is-the-way-it's-always-done behavior, and cripple creativity. Perhaps in this moment we need a human who believes in what we do, who is empathetic and a good listener, someone who will translate the arcane necessities of our work for the larger organization; someone who makes us shine.
Recently we spent a staff meeting identifying qualities we'd like to see in a director. One of our colleagues mentioned she was more interested in hearing about a candidate’s ideas for the future than their past experience. In short, she'd like to hear where they want to take us. There was something hugely revolutionary in that statement. It pointed toward not finding the person we're used to, but the person who will take us--maybe kicking and screaming-- where we want to go. That might mean hiring someone younger, more agile, someone with more passion than experience or more experience than degrees.
We've also reflected on the type of questions we asked in the previous go rounds. Ten years ago we needed a leader to replace a retiree with a 40-year tenure. At the time, few of the team had graduate degrees, and many were part-time. After COVID we are a smaller group, but the vast majority have one or two advanced degrees. Below are the four considerations we might incorporate into our search. What would you add?
Doing everything we can to break down our own biases about age, experience, education, gender and race to make us open to the widest variety of applicants, and galvanize our future.
Hiring for our vision statement--even if we never get there--not for our past, whether personal or collective.
Having the self awareness and understanding who we are now, and what kind of leader we need now.
Accepting that challenge and growth means discomfort, and that mediocrity is boring.
A Coda for the Baltimore Museum of Art: Last week I wrote a piece about the BMA's proposed deaccession. Since then the Museum pulled its pieces from Sotheby's before the auction. The seas were too rough and clearly Director Christopher Bedford believed pulling back could salvage some of the pending damage. Nonetheless, for the BMA and many other museums, the problems of collection diversity and salary equity remain. And they are huge. Money isn't going to fall from the sky in the post-pandemic world. It's difficult to hear voices on social media castigating the BMA while also protesting gender and race pay gaps. And suggesting these issues aren't somehow as important as the artwork belies all the post-George Floyd discussions. We've allowed these problems to metastasize, and they aren't going away. Two years ago in these pages I suggested it was time bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the museum field to tackle the problem of museum salaries and the gender wage gap? AAM, AASLH, and AAMD, where are you?