By Dr. Richard T. Geisel  

 During the Winter of 2002 a study was conducted of the  Michigan superintendency with particular attention given to  the issue of successor origin. The purpose of the study was  to learn more about the current makeup of Michigan  superintendents as well as to compare the similarities and  differences of those who were hired from within their  current district versus those who were hired from outside  their current district. Of the 524 superintendents  anonymously surveyed on-line, 363 responded for a total  response rate of 69%. Below is a summary of selected  findings. 

Gender, Age, and Demographics  

 Seventeen percent of those responding to the survey were  females, which is comparable, albeit slightly higher, to the  national average. In The 2000 Study of the American School  Superintendency, 14% of all superintendents were female  (Glass, p. 16). Interestingly, the study of the Michigan  superintendency revealed no difference between the number of  female insiders and outsiders. Exactly 20 of the 40 female  respondents indicated that they were insiders and 20  indicated that they were outsiders.  

 The vast majority of superintendents are in their  fifties (64%) and are male (83%). Fifty-six percent 

represent rural districts while only 5% represent urban  districts. Most others identify their district as suburban  or rural/suburban. Seventy-three percent of the  superintendents responded that they were content with the  size of their district, while most of the others indicated  that they would like to be in a larger district.  Successor Origin  

 One-third of the superintendents surveyed were insiders  at the time they were hired for their present  superintendency and two-thirds were outsiders. Less than 10%  of all superintendents have spent their entire career in  just one district, indicating that even the majority of  insiders have also worked in other districts throughout  their career. Interestingly, 16% of outsiders were once  insider superintendents before leaving their district for  another superintendency.  


 Another observation drawn from the data is that  approximately one-third (32%) of all superintendents  surveyed are in their first three years of being a  superintendent, which indicates a fairly significant amount  of superintendencies were turned over in the last three  years. This is a trend that leaders in the state expect to  continue due to a growing number of superintendents who are  eligible to retire.  

Superintendent/Board Relations  

 The vast majority of Michigan superintendents reported 

that they have a positive relationship with their board of  education. Surprisingly, only 3% indicated a negative  relationship with their board. Of those reporting a negative  relationship, all were outsiders. The vast majority of  Michigan superintendents also characterized favorably the  quality and frequency of communication with their board of  education. Again, only 3% reported negatively regarding  communication with their board. Generally, the  superintendents view their own performance as either  successful or very successful. Less than 4% were concerned  about their success as a superintendent.  

 The majority of current superintendents (66%) have only  held one superintendency. Of those who have held more than  one superintendency during their career, 25% reported either  conflict with the board of education or changes on the board  of education as reasons for leaving their previous  superintendency. Regardless of successor origin or other  factors, most superintendents intend to remain in the  profession as a superintendent until retirement.  Advantages and Disadvantages of One’s Origin  

 Finally, perhaps the most enlightening feedback from the  superintendents was their collective response to the last  item on the questionnaire, which asked them to indicate the  advantages and disadvantages of being an insider or outsider  superintendent. While the answers varied, it was interesting  to see the common threads that emerged from the 225  superintendents who responded to the question. Table 1 

demonstrates the general themes that were repeatedly  referred to as either advantages or disadvantages of being  an outsider.  


Table 1  

Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an Outsider    

Outsider Advantages:  

(a) No personal baggage  

(b) New ideas for the district  

(c) No alliances/Can be objective  

(d) Fresh start/Renewed motivation  

(e) Ability to bring about change  

Outsider Disadvantages:  

(a) It takes a while to get to know staff and  community  

(b) Do not know past history and culture of district  (c) Takes time to develop relationships and trust  (d) The Board has high expectations of change  (e) Unions do not like outsiders  

(f) Moving/Relocating family  


Many of the outsider superintendents responded that  

they felt that the opportunity for a fresh start with no  baggage was a distinct advantage of being an outsider. For  example, one superintendent stated that as an outsider,  “history does not get in the way of problem solving.” 

Another indicated that “as an outsider I can focus on the  present instead of the past.” The two most common responses  regarding outsider advantage were with regard to bringing  new ideas to the district and being able to operate with  objectivity because no favors were owed to others in the  district. For example, one superintendent stated that there  were “no ‘good old boy’ issues to overcome.” Another  indicated that not having ties to friends made it easier to  make the tough decisions.  

Several disadvantages of being an outsider were also  listed with the two most common responses being the time it  takes to get caught up to speed and the time it takes to  build trust. Some spoke about a loss of “institutional  history,” and others referred to the “inherent distrust of  yet another outsider.” A few superintendents saw the high  expectations of change as a disadvantage. For example, one  superintendent stated that Boards call upon outsiders to  get “their dirty work done.”  

 Table 2 demonstrates the general themes that were  repeatedly referred to as either advantages or disadvantages  of being an insider.  


Table 2  

Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an Insider   

Insider Advantages:  

(a) Know staff and community (people and values)  (b) Credibility with staff already established  (c) Smooth transitions because of prior knowledge  (d) Trust is already established because the staff and  community already know the superintendent  

(e) Already know where the landmines are  

(f) Do not have to move  

Insider Disadvantages:  

(a) People already know your soft spots  

(b) Some poor relationships already established  (c) Baggage comes along  

(d) No honeymoon/Harder to change things  

(e) Lack of new ideas/Too comfortable with status quo  

 The knowledge of the district and community, as well as  the ability to hit the ground running were the most common  advantages of being an insider that were listed by the  respondents. For example, one superintendent stated, “I knew  what areas needed to be addressed.” Another indicated that  “insiders know the unwritten rules and can navigate the  culture with ease.” Others referred to a “smooth transition”  or an “easy transition.” One superintendent commented that  being an insider allowed a “consistency toward district  goals” and an “ability to relate immediately to staff and  the issues.” Many saw the prior knowledge of the community  as a distinct advantage. For example, one superintendent  stated, “You know the people, many parents are former 


There were also several disadvantages of being an  insider that were listed. Several superintendents referred  to the lack of new ideas, the baggage that comes along, and  the difficulty of bringing about change. For example, one  superintendent referred to the “baggage” he carried from his  former position in the district. Another made reference to  the fact that there was “no honeymoon,” which made it  difficult to initiate change. Others discussed the  possibility of limited vision because of being in one place  so long. Finally, one superintendent stated, “as an insider,  you can get too comfortable.”  

Similarities & Differences 

 Most superintendents, irrespective of origin, reported  similarly on items related to things such as  

superintendent/school board relations (overwhelmingly  positive), communication (positive), job satisfaction  (positive), years served (average tenure was 5 ½ years  regardless of origin), and board evaluations of their  performance. However, this study did reveal that definite  differences exist between the insiders and outsiders  surveyed. Most notably, those differences include their  perceptions of why they were hired to be a superintendent  (insiders for stability and outsiders for change), the  actual ratio of insiders to outsiders (1/3 insiders and 2/3  outsiders), the frequency and infrequency of various  succession patterns (insider-to-insider is the least common 

pattern while outsider-to-outsider is the most common),  their attitude toward mobility (outsiders being much more  willing to think of their present assignment as temporary),  and their level of contentment with the size of their  district (outsiders demonstrated more dissatisfaction with  the size of their current district than did insiders).  Reflections  

 It could be argued that the demands and political  pressures of the superintendency have mitigated many  differences that once existed between insiders and  outsiders, especially regarding the number of years each  serves. It was interesting to note that many of the  “insiders” in this study also served in other districts at  some point in their career. Less than 10% of the respondents  indicated that they had spent their entire educational  career in one district. Workers in general do not appear to  stay in one organization or one community for their entire  career as they once did. Our society has become much more  mobile, and the loyalty between employer and employee  appears to have eroded from what it once was. This would  obviously have implications for what we once characterized  as the “placebound” superintendent.  

 Additionally, public school superintendents are under  the microscope of public scrutiny like never before. In the  Age of Information where one can watch school board meetings  on the local cable station, email the superintendent from  home, and visit a school’s website to monitor progress, 

superintendents are much more accountable and susceptible to  criticism than ever before. Couple the increased  accountability with the increased responsibility from  various state and federal mandates that continue to pile up  and it is easy to see what a complex and almost impossible  job a public school superintendent now has. Consequently,  many superintendents find themselves in the position of  needing to move on for a fresh start after several years of  fighting various battles within the district and community.   Regardless of the challenges, a relatively healthy  picture of the Michigan superintendency emerged. It was  obvious from the responses to the survey that this cohort of  Michigan superintendents has an admirable dedication to  public education. I was also impressed that so many of the  superintendents, as busy as they are, took the time to  complete this survey, granting me the opportunity to build a  profile of the Michigan superintendency. To all those who  participated, many thanks! Lead on.