A candid conversation with President Jim Scott ’70 about leadership, learning and his last year at Punahou.
How does it feel to begin your last school year?
I think the key to the year is going to be not in the transition but in continuity. And that continuity comes from our mission, vision and the Aims of a Punahou Education.
What has it been like to lead a school as large as Punahou these last 25 years?
It’s not without its tension, because even when there’s great shared vision, sometimes the status quo is more comfortable for people. The systems theorist Peter Senge uses the image of a rubber band. There’s a current state and a shared vision, and there’s always this tension between the two. It’s a lot easier on yourself and people around you if you either reduce the vision or if you don’t have a really good grasp of reality. So holding the tension becomes the role of leadership and surrounding yourself with people who are able to do that.
That sounds tiring.
It can get tiring, but your successes give you confidence and enthusiasm. Part of leadership is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. It’s important to rest. I believe that there’s a point in the summer where you have to put last year to bed and rest in order to be ready for a new year.
What else have you learned about leadership?
How to look around corners. You have to anticipate risks, think about demographics, always think five years down the line. I’d also add the importance of longevity and continuity. Most heads of school don’t make it to 10 years, but there are certain things that I couldn’t have done in my first 10 years that I was able to do in my second. A lot of the public purpose additions to the School are part of that. But it’s also the longevity of the Trustees and of our instructional leaders.
Achievements you’re most proud of?
Being able to pretty dramatically increase need-based financial aid, for one. That’s been an attitude change. When you start pushing that one, the resistance is not so subtle. It’s about whose school this is and can I still get my kids and grandkids in, and is tuition so high because we’re paying for other people’s kids. I thought that most of the battle was going to be marshaling the resources, but what we found is that people are really excited about supporting financial aid from a philanthropic point of view. The harder part of the equation has been getting families out there to believe that they can afford a Punahou education.
I’m also proud of the centers. When I first got here Wo International Center had just been built. Then we created Kuaihelani and Luke Center. We’ve expanded the Outdoor Education program and, more recently, our principals Emily and Paris have been working with design thinking, fabrication and technology. I think the next level of maturity is going to be to connect these centers to the K – 12 Learning Commons and to faculty. We’re not expecting that every teacher is going to be an expert in global education or Hawaiian culture or service learning or design thinking, but if we can successfully rotate specialists and resources into the classrooms, it’s a way of ensuring certain touchstones are part of every student’s experience.
Another accomplishment shared with a lot of people here has been building networks with other educational partners locally, nationally and globally – including some of the best schools in the country and the world – because that’s how we learn as an institution. They become our window to the outside and they also make our programs stronger. I’ve seen that with the Student Global Leadership Institute, for example.
What are your reflections on changing the culture of this school?
On the internal side, it’s been about developing a culture of innovation – and that isn’t just allowing for greater autonomy, which most teachers like and are used to. Almost all the important conversations now are happening in collaboration, so we’re hiring for a collaborative attitude, we’re evaluating people on their relationship with colleagues, we’re giving professional development support to people who aren’t flying solo.
For me, two of the highest points of leverage in the budget are financial aid and professional development. We still have a lot of work to do around this, and I’m not convinced this is an easy place to take risks. When we redesigned the Middle School into houses and teams, some people chose to leave. But we hired others specifically because they had helped to develop those concepts in other schools.
In that regard, facilities have also been an engine of innovation, right?
That’s a good point. It wasn’t just renovating or designing new buildings, it was a chance to engage the faculty in research about teaching and learning, and then design an environment for that.
What would you say is the value of disruption versus continuity?
Disruption forces the community to try something new, but it’s hard to create safety around that. There’s an idea called the winning of the middle third. When it comes to change, you have a third that’s already on board, and you have a third that says, “Not on my watch, I’ll retire first.” And there’s that third in the middle that is curious and interested in a good idea, but you have to persuade them. The author Daniel Pink made a point that 80 percent of our time should be dedicated to preserving the core and 20 percent to renewing it, and that the art of leadership is knowing which 20 percent to renew.
What kind of student do you want to see graduate from Punahou?
The qualities that come to mind first are self-confidence, self-direction, enthusiasm, a good heart. Understanding their responsibility beyond themselves and beyond their school. A lot of that flows from the mission, vision and Aims, and all those things, if done well, will lead to success in college and a chance that they’ll truly believe that their education is always unfinished.
Is that description any different than what you would have said 25 years ago?
What did you learn about Punahou by being a parent here?
The quality of teaching – in excellence and diversity – because you get to see a broad cross-section of teachers over your children’s time here. And then of course the quality of their peers.
But by middle school you also begin to see the sources of stress and anxiety. The anxiety of high expectations. I started thinking about the sources of that anxiety – is it the parents? The School?
How have independent schools changed over your tenure?
They’ve become more expensive and I think that’s put a new level of stress on families. I’m mindful of the fact that tuition is going to go over $25,000 next year. When I first started, those were the expensive New York schools, though now they’re charging double that. There’s more competition for students, for employees, for philanthropic dollars. So that’s part of looking around the corner – we have to be more intentional, more strategic.
At a heads of school gathering a few years ago, we heard from a psychologist whose theory was that the generation of current parents had two defining events in their lifetime: one was Sept. 11 and the other was the economic downturn in 2008. So safety and security, and having a leg up financially, are paramount for them. Then on top of that, not only do we have a generation of kids who may not achieve the same level of prosperity as their parents, but these parents saw in their lifetime how going to college wasn’t enough – you had to go to the “right” college.
If you could give yourself advice in 1994, what would it be?
I would have said, “Remember to take the long view; you don’t have to do it all five years.” I also would have said to trust people and processes. You don’t delegate totally, but at the end of the day, you have to listen to the good people that you’ve brought close to you.
“Ask your Trustees for advice and guidance.” In my first few years I had experience running another school, but I was still 41 or so. And a lot of my first Board members were my father’s age – I went to school with their children. Looking back on some administrative changes I made, I think that if the Board had known about them ahead of time and I’d asked for guidance, they wouldn’t have been surprised – which is never good – and they could have been more helpful in supporting me.
“Find mentors and executive coaches.” I think that’s what I’d like to do when I’m in retirement. I wish I’d trusted myself to go find them when I started.
“When to say thank you and express appreciation.”
What are you most grateful for?
A chance to educate my own children. A chance to reinvent myself. The support of Trustees in pursuing a big vision and the philanthropic support of our constituents.
Anything you feel you’re leaving unfinished?
Yes. But I can safely say that these aren’t just Jim Scott’s ideas: Looking at the next 25 years for Wo International Center; creating a net-zero energy campus; social, emotional and ethical learning and what that looks like when it’s fully mature, especially when we’re supporting adults; the K – 12 Learning Commons; the idea of a Punahou ha¯lau, a place of learning around all things Hawaiian, which would be the next iteration of Kuaihelani; Punahou as a nexus between educational research and practice; growing partnerships to help extend the model of the PUEO Program outside Punahou.
What are you going to do next?
Most people are just allowed to retire – they’re not asked what they’re going to do next but where they’re traveling to (laughs). Generally speaking, I’d like to help public and private school leaders make their schools better. There are some principles of practice I’ve learned here that could be helpful to others.