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The Peter Principle in Academia

Oct 11,2021 - Last updated at Oct 11,2021

It has been the practice in Jordan that presidents of Jordanian universities are selected from those in academia who possess a rank of full professor. While other countries may use a similar selection criterion of university presidents, the majority also look into other credentials such as management capability, fame, ability to attract donors and supporters, etc. The current selection criteria in Jordan reminds one of the Peter Principle, the management concept explained by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull in a book that was published under the same title in 1969 and gained popularity among scholars and laypeople worldwide. Even though few may have heard of it in academia in Jordan, and fewer have even disdained to avoid the pitfall it warns against, it is worth visiting since the country’s higher education system has not been doing well for quite some time.   

Let’s elaborate! The Peter Principle observes that people in a hierarchical organisation tend to be promoted to their highest level of incompetence because they are promoted based on their success in previous jobs. In other words, they rise because they possessed the skills for a different job until the hierarchy lifts them into a level at which they are no longer competent because their skills in their previous job does not necessarily translate to skills in another. An example may further illustrate this principle:  Dr. X is brilliant in his/her field of specialisation, say English literature or nuclear physics (two extremes, I know!). They had worked so hard at publishing technical papers in their field of specialisation to be promoted from assistant professor to associate professor and then into a full professor. They were to publish more technical papers that delved deeper and deeper with manifest academic rigor into his sub-specialisation at each stage. This of course required days and months of focussed attention, study, analysis, and more study in order to finesse such papers. Isolation from people may easily be a requirement. Avoiding friends and family to chaperone books and research could easily be another requirement.  However, the reward is an eventual promotion into the rank and title of full professor.

Once a full professor, the person becomes in line for the managerial post of a university president, which entails a significant jump in salary, privileges, exposure, and authority. But dare one ask the obvious, albeit unasked, question: What do the research and academic publishing skills have to do with managing resources (people and capital)? Absolutely nothing! Do we not lose a remarkable researcher and gain a lousy manager? In some cases, absolutely!

Let’s look at the data: Not one university in Jordan has made it into the top 600 worldwide; all the public universities were indebted in 2019 (about JD108 million); public universities invented what is known as the parallel track (whereby if daddy is wealthy enough his son can get in provided he pays 3-5 times the regular fees); university graduates suffer from a 31 per cent unemployment rate; women (who make up most of the educated) have the lowest labour participation rate, and it takes a graduate 4-6 years to find a job. Of course not all can be blamed on the Peter Principle, but maybe some of it? I wonder.

So, how is it done elsewhere? In other countries such as the US, the job of university president is given to a well-known person who can add to the university’s prestige and raise funds for its programmes and activities. Such could be as a famous business person (Mohamed El-Erian, the former CEO of PIMCO, the global investment management firm, is President of Queens’ College, Cambridge); ex-governor of the state (such as Admiral David Boren, the University of Oklahoma); an ex-general (Norman Schwarzkopf, Texas A&M University; and); or a distinguished  scholar (Lawrence Summers, former vice president of Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank who became the president of Harvard). Why should the selection criteria in Jordan be based on similar principles and not simply the Peter Principle? One truly likes to know.

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