KET says experience counts in new leader

In choosing its new executive director, the leaders of Kentucky Educational Television decided against a national search and promoted an internal executive who dropped out of college before joining the network for a nearly 25-year career.

It's an educational background that might seem surprising, but it is not unprecedented, national observers say, and also comes at a time when many state networks are promoting staffers to save the costs and time-consuming nature of searches.

The chairwoman of KET's governing body, and past and present executive directors say Shae Hopkins' decades of experience, all at KET, made her the ideal choice to head the educational network.

"God knows I want all the college degrees in the state that we can get," said Virginia Fox, a former KET executive director and also a former state Education Cabinet secretary. "But I truly believe this is a circumstance where proven experience wins the day."

National leaders say it's not unheard of for educational television leaders not to have finished college.

"I'm certain not all do," said Skip Hinton, president of the National Education Telecommunications Association. Hinton declined to name others without speaking with them first and could not be reached during the past few weeks.

"Typically when you require a college diploma, it's to give you some assurance with somebody you don't know that they at least have that certified background," he said. "As you move up in the ranks, it frankly is less critical unless you're looking at some very specialized area."

Julie Andersen, co-chairwoman of the Organization of State Broadcasting Executives and the head of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, added that it's not "uncommon in financially difficult times for states to look within ... rather than bring in somebody who may have a degree but no history with the state."

That knowledge of the state, as well as her institutional memory at KET, made Hopkins a choice so good that KET's leadership decided against doing a national search to replace former leader Mac Wall, who retired at the end of2009, said Hilma Prather, chairwoman of KET's governing body, the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television.

In the past 18 or so months, KET has lost 21 percent of its staff through a retirement incentive the state offered and budget reductions, she said. The network also has seen its allocation of state general funds cut by close to 20 percent.

"Because of the times we're in, because of the issues KET is facing right now, we felt it was much to KET's benefit to make a decision quickly so that there could be stability of leadership," Prather said.

The job pays Hopkins $150,000, up from her past salary of $122,412 as a deputy to Wall. Wall retired making $186,737 annually after nearly seven years at the helm.

The move will cap a rise for Hopkins from one of the lowest-level jobs at the network. In 1986, she said, she saw an advertisement that KET was seeking someone to help with its pledge drive. She was raising the first two of her three children at the time and lived a few blocks from KET's location.

"I wasn't seeking a career," she recalled. "It was interesting, it was nearby, and it was something I wanted to try."

Growing into the job

Helping out at KET was an interest, Hopkins said, one of many for her, so many that it made it tough when she was at the University of Kentucky to decide on a major. She was a student there from 1974 to 1975.

"I went to college with many interests and ... I switched majors and then ultimately decided to take a semester off," she said. "From there, my life changed directions."

She said it's tough to remember specifically, but she went on to work some in retail and on the campaigns of her father, former U.S. Rep. Larry Hopkins.

"I certainly can never defend leaving school," she said.

KET, though, became the fit. She was asked to stay on and took on jobs during the ensuing decade that included membership manager and director of development.

She said she never considered going back to school and finishing her degree because "it just never was a factor in my responsibilities or my job performance."

She continued to rise through the ranks and ultimately became deputy executive director for programming and production in April 2005. In that job, she was one of three deputies to Wall.

Her two counterparts, though, took the state's retirement incentive, leaving her as the most senior person working for Wall.

And that made her his natural successor without the board having to undergo the costs of a search, Prather said.

Wall came to KET after just such a search. It was the first national search done for a KET executive director, and Wall became just the third person to hold the title, after KET founder O. Leonard Press and Fox.

State law gives the network's governing body the right to select the executive director at its discretion and does not set guidelines on whether searches or even job postings must be done. The executive director position had never been posted when Hopkins was named to fill it.

In the job description during the search for Wall, the network requested a "bachelor's degree in a relevant academic discipline, with an advanced degree desirable."

Each of Hopkins' predecessors held a bachelor's degree, and Fox and Press each had master's degrees.

The job requisition form noted, though, that "the requirements listed ... are representative of the knowledge, skill and/or ability required."

Prather said, "The authority was fully aware of Shae's educational background. It was a unanimous decision that we feel she was uniquely qualified."

When asked what kind of message it sends for KET's leader to have not finished college, Hopkins said, "I think the message I send in being in this position ... is hard work pays off."

And as Press put it, degrees aren't "the only way to learn a lot."

"I think Shae knows more about operating ... a state network as anybody who's had four years of college and hasn't had her experience or even had her experience," he said.

And while Hopkins said she would encourage people to stay in school because of the choices it gives you, she also wouldn't change her past.

"I wouldn't have my three wonderful children," she said. "I probably wouldn't have ended up at KET. It worked out this way."