Open Letters

An open letter to the ASBMB executive director search committee

Peter Kennelly
Sept. 19, 2023

As the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology seeks to hire a new executive director by the end of this year, I’m writing today to share my thoughts on the process.

I have been an ASBMB member since 1986. Since 2007, I have continually served the society in a variety of roles. I have chaired the Education and Professional Development Committee and, later, the Membership Committee. I served on the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board from 2010 to 2015. I worked on the accreditation program and with members of the Maximizing Access Committee (then the Minority Affairs Committee) on Hands-on Opportunities to Promote Engagement in Sciences, or HOPES, a National Science Foundation–funded K–12 science outreach program. I have had the pleasure of working closely with both Barbara Gordon and Steve Miller. As a faculty member and former department head, I have extensive experience with a wide range of leadership styles.

I care deeply about the ASBMB. Having chaired or sat on many university search committees looking to fill administrative positions, I am all too familiar with the inevitable assertion, generally from an administrator, that executive experience is the indispensable qualification by which to judge applicants — that, first and foremost, we need someone who is a master of the spreadsheet. 

I beg to disagree. 

As you know, our society is at a crossroads. The steady revenue stream provided by subscriptions to our journals has evaporated with the decision to move to open access. In my opinion, there is no viable steady-state model for ASBMB. We cannot go on as we are. Either we will become THE society of biochemistry and molecular biology writ large, or we will slowly fade away. 

The times demand an executive director who possesses a big-picture vision, an appreciation for the breadth and diversity of our society, an ability to connect with the many members whose volunteerism makes possible so much of what the ASBMB is and does, and the boldness to dare.

As you sift through the applications, especially each applicant's vision statement and external letters of recommendation, look for signs of altruism, vision and an investment mentality rather than the extent of administrative experience and managerial acumen. For example, does a candidate effortlessly credit others, writing or speaking in terms of teams, communities and groups, or do they constantly talk in terms of me, my and I? Do they think and act incrementally or in transformative terms? Do they acknowledge their shortcomings while exhibiting a steady internal compass? Don't be afraid to embrace someone with the "right stuff," even though they may seem relatively young and inexperienced. 

Speaking as a former department head and committee chair, I believe that administrative experience is overrated. Administrative skills can be learned, and lack of experience can be addressed through effective partnership with staff. Imagination, vision, empathy and conviction cannot acquired from a book or a workshop. 

We need to be willing to dare if the ASBMB is to grow and diversify. And that’s what it must do to match the global impact of our discipline and the needs of our members, both present and future.

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Peter Kennelly

Peter Kennelly is a professor of biochemistry at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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