Nepotism, cronyism and institutional discrimination

This post is in response to a Lowell Sun article by Kim Scott titled, “Lowell School Committee member drafting anti-nepotism measure”. It recounts one minority educator’s experience in Lowell trying to get a promotion for over a decade. The original article can be found at:

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There’s a scene near the end of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator has fallen down a dark sewer and he can’t see anything. The only thing he has with him is his briefcase containing all the diplomas, certificates and letters that he’s gathered throughout his life to validate his worth and his place in society. Left with no other options, the narrator decides to burn these papers, beginning with his high school diploma. It is a powerful symbolic moment in the book, and it leads to the narrator’s epiphany that he has just been a pawn in a large game of race, politics and economics.

Shortly thereafter, the narrator has a dream, where he is surrounded by all the people who have played him for a fool, and have used him for their own ends. After one of his antagonists castrates him, he asks the narrator, “How does it feel to be free of one’s illusions”?

To this, the narrator responds, “Painful and empty”, before starting to laugh a few moments later, to the astonishment of his torturers. Curious, they question why he is rejoicing, to which he says, “I’m not afraid now”.

This is how I felt shortly after the July 4th celebration was over and my wife found out that once again, she had not been chosen for promotion in her school district. It was her 7th or 8th attempt (we’ve stopped counting) in 13 years to move from being a classroom teacher to a leadership position. What good, after all, are her two bachelor’s degrees, three Masters Degrees, eight certifications, and nearly two decades of experience in public schools if she is “invisible” to the people who are doing the hiring and promoting?

Hers is a long story stretching all the way back to 2000, when we first moved near her hometown of Lowell to begin raising our family. At that time, she already had multiple leadership certifications and applied for the Head of the English Department opening at her old high school alma mater. When she lost to a teacher who had been there since she was a student in the high school, she figured it was just a case of “insider’s” first, and was encouraged by the positive feedback everyone gave her. Little did she know then, that this was just the beginning of a torturous, eye-opening and spirit wrenching experience that would coax her into waging a fight which was bigger than us, but which we would have to fight alone.

Our suspicions that something was not right did not really begin until around 2006. After having lost to an “insider” in 2000, my wife reapplied for the Head English Department position when it reopened in 2004. Once again, she was a finalist and found herself encouraged and enthusiastic that she would be able to move upward in her career. This time, however, the “outsider”, she was told, had “more experience as a supervisor”; a factor that had not kept the previous winner of the job from claiming the title. But my wife licked her wounds and continued working hard, earning a license to teach high school social studies so that she could pilot a program at the school where English and History teachers co-taught. She also tutored students in their homes after school, driving all over Lowell in order to make up the money she didn’t get, from the promotion she would never receive.

When the new head of the English department decided she was resigning after less than two years, my wife (who had already been chosen twice as a finalist for the position) asked the leadership at the school if she could be appointed interim, while they searched for a new leader. Instead, her requests were ignored and they hand-picked another staff member who had never expressed any desire to be the English Head and who had never applied for any leadership positions at the school. This was when she started to feel “invisible” and when we started to pay closer attention to who was being hired and promoted.

The new interim had one problem, however, she was not yet certified to be a department head.  So, while they waited for her to complete the paperwork and get all of the necessary documentation in order, the school posted the opening and closed it almost immediately, knowing that “their” candidate wasn’t yet ready. My wife did apply for the position when it was posted, but she did not get a call. Instead they waited for their candidate to be ready and then reopened the posting, at which time my wife was chosen to be one of the finalists.

It was only after they selected the other person that someone from the administration finally told my wife that she did not have the proper licensure; that her principal and assistant principal licenses from New York State were not exactly the same as the department head license required in Massachusetts. It was the ace they had hidden in their pockets for over five years as they pretended to interview her in earnest. Not once had it been mentioned, but my wife accepted defeat and blamed herself for not investigating the issue more rigorously. In reality, this was just a bureaucratic technicality that could have easily been resolved by making a phone call to the Massachusetts DESE.

But it was something more sinister, too. For us, this was the first solid evidence that there was a moving target for my wife to shoot at. When she was the “outsider”, they were looking for “insiders”. When she was the “insider”, they were looking for “outsiders”. Unlike the hand-chosen candidate who was given time on the job, which counted as valuable leadership experience and who was guided by the hand through the licensing and certification process (even posting and closing the job as they waited for her) my wife would receive no such assistance, no such opportunity.

At this point, we turned to the MCAD (Massachusetts Council Against Discrimination) which we quickly learned was a toothless and clawless paper tiger; a bureaucratic stop gap meant to quell people’s complaints rather than address them. Their “investigation” amounted to a questionnaire they sent to the administration about my wife’s complaint, and a twenty-minute “hearing” where the school rolled out their ace in the hole. My wife, according to them, didn’t have one of the posted requirements. What about equal employment opportunities, we asked? What about protections afforded by Affirmative Action or the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

No. We were told. They hadn’t done anything wrong. Unless we had heard someone come right out and call my wife some derogatory name or unless they had somehow overtly hinted that their problem with her was her ethnicity or her disability, then we had no ground to stand on for a discrimination case. There was no Paula Deen moment for us when someone had slipped that way, to reveal his true feelings or personal prejudices. All we had was our own experience of pursuing the “American Dream” and the evidence before our eyes.

My wife decided again, that it was time to move on. She was not going to be promoted in her department and so she attempted to make a lateral move into guidance. She spent a year going to night and weekend classes, giving up her prep and free periods at school to complete the necessary practicum. She received rave reviews from her peers and stellar recommendations from her professors.

When a guidance position opened up at her school, she again felt encouraged and enthusiastic believing that a lateral move was at least more possible than a promotion. In reality, it would be a kind of a promotion, since guidance counselors are paid under the administrator’s contract in her school district. Among the requirements in the posted advertisement was, “5 years minimum teaching experience”. This time, my wife knew she had the correct license, though it was still being processed.

The DESE has an educator portal that allows teachers and administrators to log in and check on their certificates and licenses. My wife’s license had a status of “Ready for Review” which essentially means that all the paperwork is in order and all someone needs to do is verify it. Administrators such as principals and superintendents can, with just a phone call, expedite this procedure if they wish to make sure that a candidate’s certifications and licenses are valid.

More than fifty people showed up to interview for that one coveted position, and when it was all said and done, the person they chose was NOT my wife. Nor was it anyone who was more qualified or had more experience in education. Instead, they chose a person whose previous employment record showed that she had worked as a hotel guest representative during her short tenure as an adult. Worst of all, she did NOT have the posted “5 years minimum teaching experience”.

For us, this was a blatant illustration of how feckless and irresponsible the administration was being in hiring and promotions. When my wife approached her union representative to question how or why someone who did not meet the posted “minimum requirements” could be hired for such a job, she was simply told that it was left to the discretion of the people doing the hiring, mostly the principal. But how could this person’s resume even make it to the principal’s desk as part of the pool of finalists when she did not even have the basic minimums?

This is what hiring committees are for … so that people can hide behind a nebulous cloud of disinformation and give the appearance of propriety, while they carry out their nepotism and cronyism under the appearance of a fair procedure. If there’s a committee, goes the reasoning, no one person can be blamed for any decision and so no one can be held accountable. It works perfectly, acting as a prophylactic against accusations of favoritism or nepotism.

None of the other fifty plus applicants looking for a guidance counselor job, but who all lost to the former hotel employee, had any reason to believe that something nefarious was going on. They showed up with their resumes, transcripts and recommendations in hand, believing that they had a fair shot at a high paying job. And when they were told they didn’t get the job, they probably assumed they had just lost out to someone with more experience or a better education. They might have even reasoned that they had lost out to someone who had already “paid their dues” in the system.

It was a crushing defeat for my wife to realize that she was “invisible”. That despite her Ivy League degree and her long affiliation with the school, that her services and expertise were not ever going to be rewarded there. A week after she was told that she didn’t get the guidance counselor job at the high school, my wife was hired at a community college as the Evening Enrollment Coordinator/ Academic Counselor, where she is essentially doing the same thing that guidance counselors do. She worked that job, sacrificing her nights and weekends so that she could gain valuable experience and be ready for the next guidance counselor opening which just occurred a few weeks ago.

She didn’t get it, which is where this whole narrative began … With us looking at a pile of diplomas and certifications which are useless to us. With us holding each other and reassuring one another that we have to fight against this injustice, because it is NOT just about us.

As first generation Americans, my wife and I are both the children of immigrants who arrived here looking for greater opportunities. None of our parents, not mine nor hers, ever graduated from high school, and yet education was always very important to them. We believed in the myth of hard work and meritocracy, where you were rewarded for what you know, not who you know. Perhaps we were naïve to be so optimistic, but we wanted to believe, we HAD to believe, for we had no other choice. We didn’t have an uncle or a brother or a cousin or an aunt who owned anything or worked someplace they could “get us a job”. Neither did the fifty people who lost to a former hotel employee. Neither do most of the students that we have to try to inspire every day to reach for their dreams.

The problem where my wife works is not just a matter of nepotism and cronyism, however. One of the bullet points in their mission statement says that they are a community: “That strives to meet the needs of a variety of ethnic and language backgrounds, career interests, and learning capabilities and styles by providing a broad range of programmatic offerings”. A quick review of the DESE statistics reveals that Lowell has a student population which is 68% minority, but has a staff which is 91% white. Apparently, meeting these language and career interests does not include hiring people who can be seen as role models for the children of those minority communities.

Nothing to see here folks … that’s what they want you to believe.


Interestingly enough, the former Head of the English Department who resigned less than two years after getting the job, has returned to the district where she was rehired at a higher salary for an even better job. In Lowell, it sure does pay to know someone and have the right last name.