Ethical Educator

Disqualification Over a Misogynistic Meme
School Administrator, May 2022

Scenario: An executive search consultant with 25 years in the superintendency is leading a school board through a search to fill its vacancy. After the consultant gives the board a slate of six semi-finalists, a board member discovers one of the candidates had posted a misogynistic meme about Nancy Pelosi in 2020. She shares the find with the search consultant and the board president, who seems perturbed but tells other board members it was “no big deal.” However, several board members believe the social media post is a disqualifier and ask the search consultant to address this discovery before the candidate interviews with the full board the following week. What should the search consultant advise them to do? 

Chris Nicastro:

There can be no tolerance for inappropriate behavior or misogynistic, racial, or ethnic slurs in education.  Whether it's on social media, in a public setting or in writing, such conduct says a great deal — and nothing positive — about the values and principles of the candidate.  

If the search consultant can verify that the candidate did, in fact, post such a comment, then the consultant would be well advised to take the individual out of the slate. While the school board president may not view the act as "no big deal," obviously some on the board feel otherwise. The search process will not be successful if the board can't come together on a successful candidate. 

The consultant should inform the board that the candidate will be removed from the slate. As a service to the candidate, the consultant ought to advise the candidate to be forthcoming with this information in future searches.  

MaryEllen Elia:

The search for a new superintendent is one of the primary responsibilities of a school board. It is critical they hire an experienced search consultant to run the process for them, including soliciting input from various community and stakeholder groups, as well as doing a thorough investigation of all the candidates’ use of social media. Ultimately, the consultant presents the board with a comprehensive list of vetted candidates who match their criteria.  

In this circumstance, when additional information was brought to the attention of the consultant, it should be included in determining the final list of candidates for the school board to consider. It is prudent for the consultant not to downplay or consider it ”no big deal.” This type of information will inevitably become public.  

Because it seems the list of possible candidates already was shared with board members, the consultant should amend the list of recommended candidates and provide an explanation as to why changes were made.   

Louis Wool:

The board president’s comments notwithstanding, misogynistic comments are always a big deal. The board is faced with an obvious ethical dilemma: Should the candidate move forward regardless of the explanation for the posting? The circumstances raise far more troubling and pressing questions.

The most consequential decision entrusted to a school board is to select the superintendent of schools, a person who embodies the instructional and moral leadership of the district. How can an experienced search consultant fail to uncover such a troubling public statement by a vetted job finalist? As a board trustee, I would require a thorough explanation of how this material omission occurred and assurances no other concerns were missed regarding other finalists. Only after those assurances would I agree to continue the process. While I would keep an open mind, I am hard-pressed to think of a circumstance that justifies the candidate moving forward.

However, the more perplexing moral dilemma for the board is their divergent perspectives on the seriousness of the problem and the approaches for moving forward. The trustees must compel the president to work with the entire board to revisit its most critical responsibility and the implications of their decision, not just at this moment, but over the longer term. Most importantly, the board must ensure the process of selecting their educational leader is rigorous, aligned to the district’s values and beyond reproach. Anything less is a  dereliction of duty. 
Sheldon Berman:

Although one’s political views should have no relevance in a superintendent search, showing respect for others and acting in ways that build positive relationships with people who hold differing political perspectives are essential for a successful superintendency. This social media post appears to be disrespectful, chauvinistic and divisive. If, in fact, this was the candidate’s post, it reflects poorly on his judgment and his ability to promote a respectful culture that enables people to work together despite differences in perspective. 

Because this post is public, it is likely that members of the community will become aware of it, thereby undermining parental and community trust in the individual. Even if the candidate were to claim it was a spur-of-the-moment mistake, it reflects poorly on his ability to monitor and control his own thoughts, words and actions. 

Reference checks and online searches are an essential part of the hiring process. However, there are times when searches turn up information about another individual with the same or a similar name or information that has been falsely attributed to an individual. The first step is for the search consultant to discuss the post with the candidate to determine if it was actually posted by him. If it was posted by the candidate, the search consultant needs to hear his reasoning for the post and whether he wants to move forward in the process given the concerns of members of the board. 

If there isn’t an explanation that may allay people’s concerns about the post, this would be a good time for the candidate to withdraw, given that once the post becomes public there will likely be strong and mostly negative community reaction. If the applicant believes he can still be a viable candidate, the search consultant should counsel the candidate to explain his reason for the post and think through how he will address community concern in response to it. 

The search consultant also should share the information with the entire board. Because there may be restrictions about what the board can and cannot discuss in executive session, they may want to rely on the screening committee, which generally can hold non-public meetings, to determine whether to continue to recommend the candidate as a semi-finalist. If the search committee is still in the process of recommending semi-finalists to the board, the consultant will need to inform them of the conversation with the applicant and have them discuss the viability of this individual’s candidacy. 

Based on what the board learns from the search consultant about the post, they can choose not to interview the candidate. However, the board can also choose to interview the candidate and then raise the question of the post in their interview, if the candidate does not first address it directly. The board’s question should not be framed as an inquiry into the candidate’s political views, but rather about the disrespectful and misogynistic nature of the comment. 

Given the litigious nature of our current environment, eliminating this individual from consideration may result in a lawsuit contending that he was denied the opportunity based on his political perspective. However, pursuing a candidate who has already demonstrated poor judgment is not in the best interest of any community, and this position would be defensible if the board were taken to court on the issue. 
The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.