The Cautionary Tale of Rudy Crew

Paul Evans

It is a cautionary tale. We must identify the direct and indirect costs of empowering leaders that prove themselves incapable of keeping faith with the public trust.

Not long ago Rudy Crew abandoned his post as the State of Oregon’s Chief Education Officer. He left Oregon to become a college president. Crew is now effectively AWOL (absent without leave) from the revolution he was supposed to lead.

While few people could, would, or even should, fault another for seeking positions that advance a career (with increased compensation and/or prestige) Crew left Oregon after less than a year on the job.

During his brief tenure Crew earned over $230,000 (nearly the amount former elected superintendents of public instruction earned per four year term of office).

Crew was known to push hard on school leaders that balked at his vision of expecting higher achievement absent sufficient resources. He admonished educators that described the challenges of expecting "more" with "less."

After telling people they needed to reorient thinking – to stop complaining and start achieving – he promptly left the state for a more glamorous gig in New York.

Crew’s audacity is something for the history books.

Over the past several weeks, stories have emerged describing potential abuses during his tenure. Reports have focused upon his generous compensation package, elitism, excessive travel, and frequent absences from state business.

Some of these revelations have been shocking to be sure.

And there will undoubtedly be even more stories in the coming months about the opportunity costs of hiring Crew: the costs associated with the ongoing restructuring of the K-16 educational enterprise may well emerge as a 2014 campaign issue.

In a few months, after the fuss and fury subsides, the end result will be squandered potential, weakened alliances, and increased distrust among a public already frustrated with the pace of change. Ironically, all of that energy could have been tremendously helpful for the restructuring that Crew was hired to orchestrate.

Whatever else may be said about Crew’s brilliance, charisma, or skills he demonstrated open contempt for Oregon. His unanticipated, undignified, and ultimately unjustified early departure was an act of dishonor, an act I hope his new employers take notice of. In recent weeks most of the reports have focused upon “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Questions have focused upon the rationale for hiring Crew, oversight of his performance, and the staff that supported him.

This week, Governor Kitzhaber explained to the Editorial Board of the Salem Statesman-Journal that hiring Crew was a calculated risk. The Governor stood up for the folks that recommended his hiring. I accept his logic: you have to support your subordinates, you have to support the unit you put into the field.

At this point there is very little gained spending time questioning the utility of what Crew might have done had he stayed. We cannot know what will not happen.

In government, as in war, there are times when a potential objective is worth the risk. Our children deserve the best education, training, and workforce preparation regime we can establish: Crew was cast as the stand-up leader we needed.

Sometimes a town needs a “Shane” to do the hard things the peaceful townsfolk are unable, or unwilling, to do. Sometimes the townsfolk are better off without the help. In time there will be lessons learned from this most recent experience.

Good government experiments: it recognizes failure early, it rewards successes often, and it assesses honestly, openly, and continuously. And over the past three years, the State of Oregon has implemented a plethora of reinvention initiatives. We learn through reaching beyond our grasp.

Here's the salient point: in a republic it is critical that we trust the folks we empower. If we do not trust our leaders, we should replace them. Our leaders did the best they could with the information available.

We should not be angry or frustrated with the team that brought Rudy Crew to Oregon.

Crew was brought here for a rational, reasoned purpose. It is clear the potential benefits associated with his leadership were believed to overshadow the doubts.

Governor Kitzhaber, the Oregon Legislature, and school leaders across the State of Oregon gave Rudy Crew an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he promptly squandered for the promise of a more interesting career opportunity.

Crew was tapped to restructure the education enterprise within the State of Oregon. He was provided the talent, tools, and treasure for implementing a new vision. Crew was allotted expanded authorities, funding, and a larger staff. Most importantly, Crew was given our trust.

And then he left town.

Rudy Crew was tapped to lead and he abandoned his post: Crew bears the responsibility for his own dereliction of duty.

Truth in advertising: I did not agree with replacing an elected superintendent of public instruction with an appointed careerist. I do not agree with it now. However, as a past school board member and current classroom instructor, I believe in education. We must move reform forward in the near-term.

The new approach may or may not yield the aspirational targets established by the Governor and the Legislature, but there can be little dispute that it would have had a far better chance of succeeding with a leader willing to accept the responsibilities associated with structural and systemic change.

And we will never really know the full extent of what could have been – had Rudy Crew been a principled man that fulfilled his charge.

Despite his departure, Rudy Crew should not, must not be forgotten. He is an example for all of us.

It is our duty to make sure the men and women empowered on our behalf are held to account when they fall short of expectations; it is our job as citizens to help our public officers serve the interests of the public.

It is a cautionary tale. We must identify the direct and indirect costs of empowering leaders that prove themselves incapable of keeping faith with the public trust.

There should be no place in our government – in appointed or elected office – for people that believe themselves to be “above the law.” There should be penalties for public servants that commit to contracts they have little interest in honoring. And there should be redress against those that wear the cloak of public service and use their positions to advance their own careers – at the expense of their legitimate duties.

I ask our representatives and senators to immediately consider legislation that would hold our leaders accountable for the decisions associated with these kinds of situations. We should establish a “Rudy Crew Law” that requires repayment (with interest) for top-tier appointeds, contractors, and electeds that fail to serve the tenure of a term of service and/or the duties assigned by contract.

And I ask our Governor and Attorney General to seriously consider legal remedy from Crew himself for malpractice – for contempt of office – a crime that may not yet exist, but should.

In the military, desertion in the field still warrants a death penalty: Crew doesn’t deserve a firing squad, but he doesn’t deserve a whole lot better...

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