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No one wants an academic leader who’s been “promoted to the level of their incompetence”—not hiring committees, deans or university presidents, and certainly not the faculty and staff who work with that leader. Yet most institutions continue to promote academic leaders based chiefly on prior academic performance, and individuals often continue to rise until their skills prove insufficient in their new positions. What can be done to defeat the Peter Principle in academe?

The root of the problem lies in the two-tiered approach that most institutions use when hiring academic leaders. “Tier 1” searches typically arise for departments that are either in crisis or are perceived to possess unrealized strategic potential. Those searches receive top priority and result in national searches that tend to emphasize proven previous administrative performance at other institutions. Even so, established performance criteria usually are not used, and opinions frequently differ among members of a search committee on what constitutes such prior proven “success.” Such searches rest on the belief that external experience and skills will translate well to a new institution and prove sufficient in a new challenge—and they gamble that the new position will not exceed the competence of the successful candidate.

Most administrative positions do not, however, result in a national search. These second-tier searches involve only internal candidates, and the typical outcome is the selection of a faculty member with good scholarship and seniority. Because established performance criteria are not used in such searches, either, selections typically are not based on specified expectations for administrative skills and knowledge. Broad research, reputational and “contribution” criteria are used instead. Administrative promotion becomes defined as the reward for a successful faculty career, or simply the selection of the candidate who is perceived to be next in line for the role. These practices increase the likelihood that a significant proportion of successful internal candidates are promoted beyond the level of their competence.

Researchers have studied these patterns extensively outside academe. For example, Alan Benson and his co-authors discovered that sales organizations tend to function in accordance with the Peter Principle, based on their hiring practices for leadership positions. If an organization wants to reward an outstanding salesperson, it either must substantially raise their salary or tie a more modest raise to a promotion to a managerial position. Organizations accept the trade-off of a less effective manager to retain the individual’s sales performance. While it remains unclear whether poor management undermines overall unit productivity, it definitely increases turnover, according to various research by Mitchell Hoffman, Edward P. Lazear, Kathryn Shaw and others. Notably, as in academe, when a managerial position is really important—say, for a key unit or one requiring crucial specialized skills—sales organizations will search for the best manager, even if they have to do so externally.

In academe, according to those who’ve studied the trends, hiring administrative leaders because of their past academic performance often creates a gap in administrative skills and knowledge. Such hiring practices lack a clearly defined standard for administrative performance against which the institution can measure new academic leadership—to define expectations, identify gaps and target both training and improvement efforts. Leadership training, when it occurs, tends to be unfocused and unsupported. Institutions also persist in allowing academic leaders to explain away poor performance, including faculty dissatisfaction, by pointing out that no administrator can please everyone (“if you make tough decisions, you will make enemies”), rather than setting clear standards for academic leadership.

Two Recommendations

I suggest two solutions. First, defeat the Peter Principle by defining (and deploying) such clear standards for academic leadership. Gates Garrity-Rokous, vice president and chief compliance officer at Ohio State University, and I have created a framework that classifies administrative leadership into six domains.... created a framework that classifies administrative leadership into six domains: 1) values and behavior, 2) developing people, 3) decision-making, 4) goal-setting, 5) organization, and 6) oversight—and defining competencies within each domain in optimized states. This framework enables both uniform institutional standards for administrator evaluation and tailored competency needs for each position, transporting evaluation discussions away from the subjective (nice person, good scholar) to the measurable (administrative performance and subsequent improvement).

Second, defeat the Peter Principle by rethinking the recruiting pipeline altogether. Recruiting all positions as top tier—with vetted position descriptions and national searches—is not realistic, because it requires greater resources and more search time. More practically, second-tier internal hiring should be rethought to replace the “first in line” concept with a clear differentiation into faculty and administrative lines of work. That requires rethinking appointment, promotion and tenure standards. Many companies in industry, like BMW, separate developed expert and managerial promotion lines, with comparable compensation, so as not to induce experts to move into management positions for which they are not suitable.

More fundamentally, colleges and universities should rework second-tier recruitment by focusing on the development pipeline. The “first in line” concept incentivizes late-career faculty with a lack of interest in learning and improvement to move into administrative positions, creating an often-unmovable set of skills and knowledge. Leadership development needs to occur at an earlier career stage, when faculty members are still adjusting to their careers and are open to training. Early faculty leadership training creates educated faculty cohorts to better support an institution in many formal and informal leadership actions and therefore improve the functioning of that institution. Significantly, such faculty members also have a more realistic view of the demands of administrative work—both the preparation needed and the appropriateness of their expectations of others.

Widespread leadership training based on a consistent leadership framework would improve the overall quality of academic administration, a goal seen by many prominent academic management theorists as necessary, such as Brent Ruben and Walter H. Gmelch. Increasingly, institutions offer faculty training in teaching and for researchers in laboratory management, and faculty leadership training would complement this training well. Indeed, common leadership expectations provide a common structure, enabling all leaders to integrate vital priorities—diversity and inclusion, wellness, student success, and others. In addition, within an institutionally accepted framework, continuous training in small chunks would provide focus on just-in-time effectiveness and utility—and have direct application in daily life. Continuous, relevant, complementary and targeted training would also be more acceptable to faculty members and more effective than large amounts of time once or twice during a faculty career.

The Peter Principle applies in academe—but it doesn’t need to. Rethinking the pipeline and adopting an institutional standard or leadership framework would improve internal hiring and promotion, as well as administrative work in general. More fundamentally, the ongoing need for a culture of academic leadership requires embedding such an institutional standard or framework through targeted training throughout the faculty development life cycle.

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