January 3, 2011

Who is Cathleen P. Black?

Cathleen Black in 1997. 

Last November, Mayor Mike hand-picked this same Cathleen Black, a corporate publishing mogul and business leader, to become the new Chancellor of the NYC public school system, the largest public school system in the country. Despite protests and several lawsuits waged by civic and education groups which decried Black’s lack of experience as well as her refusal to issue any revealing statements about the state of public education these days, she was waived in by some stacked-deck committee of Bloomberg toadies. So today she was sworn in.
Much like her predecessor Joel Klein, (who had been a media magnate himself at Bertelsmann, and who will now go on to work for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.,) Black has been at the helm of Hearst Magazines since 1979, and, to her credit *cough* has successfully found plenty of shelf-space for glossy show-and-tells like Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Redbook, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, etc. She has also served as eight-year President of USA Today, perhaps the daily template for dumb-downed and fluffed-up misinformation, (see rampant euphemisms, one-dimensional reporting, and all the accompanying multi-colored charts and pie diagrams your ADD desires.) As for her professional accomplishments, the NY Times mentioned that Black, “helped convince Oprah Winfrey it was time to extend her brand to publishing, personally visiting the talk-show host with a mockup of what was to become O, the Oprah Magazine — one of the biggest success stories in the industry.” For more on Black’s accomplishments and skills as a businesswoman, see this article.

Black also sits on the board of IBM and Coca-Cola Co., positions she promised to resign from come the New Year. (For more of Black’s involvements with Coca-Cola and IBM, see this NY Times article.) And to complete the portrait, according to one NY Times article, Black also has homes on the Upper East Side as well as in Connecticut where her children attend…you guessed it! private boarding schools. Unsurprisingly, Black never attended public schools as a youngster herself. But perhaps most damning, she has absolutely no experience in education at all, not even any gigs in public service.


Alex Pareene in an article in Slate thus wrote,      

The New York public schools system serves more than a million students. Picking the woman responsible for keeping Cosmo profitable and publishing anti-literacy newspaper USA Today to run the whole thing is corporatism masquerading as benevolent rule by our wisest technocrats.

The fantasy of the superstar CEO who can parachute into any company -- in any industry -- and right the ship through time-tested management techniques is common in corporate circles, but so are books of New Yorker cartoons about golf. Only the sort of lucky billionaire convinced of the moral superiority of the financially successful would assume that a random executive with no education experience could manage the New York city public schools better than someone who... you know, has experience managing public schools.

Although I disagree with Pareene’s emphasis on “experience” as the sole criteria for determining the merits of appointees to important positions in general, we should nevertheless wonder how Mme. Black will go about making her decisions: Does she know what programs to cut if she must? Which ones will she fight for? How will she prioritize competing agendas and reforms? What is her vision? What are her plans, and why has she been so silent about them? 

If you ask these questions because you happen to care about public education and the welfare and health of the city's students, the interview of Black with Charlie Rose embedded above could make you seriously ill. Its only fifteen minutes but one gets the impression that any issue pertaining to public education was as important an issue to Black at the time as eighteenth century stamp collecting may have been. As she and her host whiz by topics on advertising and demographics in the fascinating world of the magazine industry circa 1997, the interview quickly becomes the typical mind-numbing interview Charlie Rose has become famous for, and which  made you change the channel to catch those last few minutes of that Cheers rerun.      

Ultimately, Boss Bloomberg’s selection of Black should hardly be surprising because it is symptomatic of the ever-increasing homogeneity of political, corporate, and educational culture. Though Black is not an educator it would be mistaken however to think she is a stranger to the world of public education, or, shall we say, the education industry. In between her various stints at Hearst and Coca-Cola, Black also finds time to sit on the Advisory Council of the Harlem Village Academy, a charter school in NYC, while her husband and confidante, Thomas E. Harvey, is a “longtime lawyer” for the Institute of International Education – and, let it also be known, “a regular donor to Republican candidates and causes.” 

Bloomberg admitted months ago when going public with his selection of Black that he did not want an educator as his new Chancellor but rather a “world-class manager,” or, more glowingly, a superstar manager who has succeeded in the private sector. But what our intractably smug mayor may not prefer to mention however was the selection process by which he chose her, a process which the NY Times has describe as “secretive.” “To a degree unusual even for an administration that relishes keeping deliberations as private as possible,” the article said, “hardly anyone knew of Mr. Klein’s departure or Ms. Black’s arrival until minutes before the official announcement. While such posts are typically filled after highly publicized national searches that can last months or even a year, there is little evidence that anyone else was seriously vetted or considered – and few of the usual suspects, including members of the mayor’s inner circle, were even consulted.” The autocracy, as well as the bad judgment of selecting her, was echoed by Black herself when blurting to the NY Post that ‘the offer came out of left field.’” Fearing a public debate which might spoil a thing or two, the mayor went ahead like a good dictator, and chose, in the words of the NY TImes,  “someone he knew through business and social networks, someone squarely in his comfort zone of wealthy and socially prominent Upper East Side residents, someone with whom he shared many friends and colleagues, dinners and drinks.” According to the same NY Times article, Bloomberg and Black, along with Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein, indeed happen to be “regular attendees” to New York investment bank Allen and Company’s annual get-togethers in Sun Valley, Idaho, “the exclusive gathering each July of the country’s publishing elite.”  

I suppose it would be remiss not to mention that Mike Bloomberg has been a longtime proponent of charter schools. (And for a report-card on NYC schools under his reign, see this recent article. For some broader perspective on charter-schools nationwide, see this review of “Waiting for Superman” by Diane Ravitch.) Bloomberg has also announced plans to cut back on teacher tenure, and make it easier for the city to fire teachers. He also looks forward to opening a high-school which will be a partnership between IBM and the City University of New York, thereby allowing students of the school to earn a two–year degree and get a head-start in "being the first in line for a job at IBM,” as any aspiring NYC teenager should surely want. I mean in today's techno-world, and what not, who could protest when Mikey assured the public last September at NBC's education Summit that NY state law would be changed to require public schools to buy more digital goodies from the very media conglomerates that he, Black, and Klein broker with. Read about what else he said that day here.    

According to Carmen Fiarina, who served under outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein from 2004-2006, “I’m not sure if the purpose of this appointment is to strengthen — or eliminate — public schools.” A far more prescient critique however was recently given by Henry A. Giroux, also an educator, who wrote that Black’s appointment illustrates that  
educational and political problems can be solved through the template of a business culture increasingly characterized by top-to-down modes of governance, unchecked financial recklessness, a contempt for democratic modes of deliberation, a hatred of unions’ and teachers’ rights, a disdain for all things public and a flight for social and moral responsibility. But the real issue here is not about the appointment of Black to a position for which she is embarrassingly unqualified, but about corporate power and a business culture, along with its pocketed elites, who both detest public education and who pose a serious threat to the educational conditions necessary for critical thought, engaged citizenship and democratic life itself.

Gets me thinking. Can you imagine some elected official in the coming future making the case that private sector managerial experience enables one to run the NYPD?

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