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City manager job description opens conversation about diversity

Ashland City Council approved an internal job description for the position of city manager last week after debating the implications of educational requirements in a fair and diverse candidate search.

Human Resource Manager Tina Gray said the description combined input from the previous and current City Council, staff feedback and descriptions gathered from other agencies.

As an internal document for HR purposes, the description may be updated annually in line with organizational changes, Gray said.

Discussion about the job description hinged on whether a master’s degree is required or highly desired in addition to a bachelor’s degree and relevant experience as sufficient qualification.

“My recommendation, from an HR perspective, is to keep it as ‘highly desired,’ so that you cast the broadest net for applicants,’” Gray said Feb. 16 during a council meeting, adding that a master’s degree may help refine the candidate pool toward the end of the selection process. “Historically, minority groups have not had access to higher education, so there’s the theory that this could have an adverse impact if you set the bar as a requirement.”

Gray said City Manager Pro Tem Adam Hanks “has made a conscious effort to maintain a professional distance from the selection process” and has not discussed an intention to apply. Hanks declined to comment on whether he intends to apply for the position.

During the council meeting, Councilor Gina DuQuenne said the job description should require a master’s degree and took offense to an implication that a woman or person of color would not have the requisite education to seek the position.

Councilor Tonya Graham said poverty is also a factor that impedes access to master’s level education, and many people who have “worked themselves up through the ranks” possess equal qualification to those who pursued a formal degree.

The initial job description compiled by staff said minimum qualifications included a “bachelor’s degree with major coursework in public administration, business administration, finance or closely related field. A master’s degree in public administration or business administration is highly desirable.”

Councilor Shaun Moran pressed for the description to include a requirement that the city manager live within city limits once hired. The people who execute policy and manage the city should live by the same rules as residents, he said.

Moran called for eliminating the bachelor’s degree sentence in the job description to emphasize a preference for a master’s degree.

“This is our most important single hire,” DuQuenne said in agreement. “I feel strongly that this person should have a master’s degree.”

Councilor Paula Hyatt said as the internal job description represents the entry point for future determinations made in interviews and contract negotiations, the requirements should remain broad. Preferences for education and experience can narrow the field once a pool is gathered, she said.

Hyatt’s motion to flip the sentences so master’s degree desirability appears first passed 5-1, with DuQuenne voting no. The job description as amended passed unanimously.

In a follow-up email to the City Council on Feb. 17, Gray clarified that her recommendation to make a master’s degree desirable in addition to a bachelor’s degree was intended to improve access and diversity in the city’s recruitment process to attract a wide range of applicants.

Gray referenced an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which claimed remedying systemic racism and increasing diversity in the workforce, in part, requires adjusting hiring practices to focus on job skills over college degrees.

A 2017 Harvard Business School study referenced in the article, titled “Dismissed by Degrees: How degree inflation is undermining U.S. competitiveness and hurting America’s middle class,” shows 385,000 public administration jobs are at risk of degree inflation — dubbed in the study as part of a growing employer default to use college degrees as a gauge for candidate skills.

“Degree inflation particularly hurts populations with college graduation rates lower than the national average, such as Blacks and Hispanics, age 25 years and older,” according to the Harvard study.

The council’s decision to approve a job description with a master’s degree “highly desired” does not exclude candidates without the degree from applying, however the council discussion shows it “is an important criterion that will be weighted heavily in the selection process,” Gray said.

While compiling the document, Gray said she found job descriptions from other cities did not show a firm requirement for a master’s degree. The city of Ashland also requires at least 10 years of experience, including three years in a chief executive post, she said.

“While I am pleased to see progress on access to master’s level education in 2021, I’m not sure that was the case 10-15 years ago, which would be the combination of experience and education we are seeking,” Gray wrote to the council.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, based on data from 2008-2009, those who obtained a master’s degree in business were mostly white (57.2%), followed by nonresident alien (14.2%), Black (13.8%), Asian or Pacific Islander (8.5%), Hispanic (5.8%) and American Indian or Alaska Native (0.5%). About 55% identified as male and 45% as female.

In the same academic year, people who obtained a master’s degree in public administration or social services were mostly white (62%), followed by Black (18.9%), Hispanic (8.6%), nonresident alien (5.2%), Asian or Pacific Islander (4.2%) and American Indian or Alaska Native (.93%). One-quarter identified as male and three-quarters as female.

Data collection did not include graduates of two or more ethnicities at the time.

In 2008, the U.S. demographic breakdown was approximately two-thirds white, 12.2% Black, 15.4% Hispanic, 4.5% Asian or Pacific Islander, 0.8% American Indian or Alaska Native and 1.5% of two or more ethnicities.

Gray said the City Council will be integral to designing a candidate profile and job announcement for recruiting the next city manager, at which time the council can narrow down preference for communication and management style, political acumen and other preferred attributes.

The council unanimously approved a $26,000 contract with Peckham and McKenney to conduct the search for a city manager. Gray said more than half of the organization’s placements since 2014 were minority selections and 37% were female.

The city manager profile and selection process is listed on the City Council look ahead for the March 2 meeting.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

file photoAshland City Council approved an internal job description for the position of city manager last week.