Ethiopia: A Transparent Approach to University President Selection

by Zelalem

Overshadowed by the country’s political crisis, a positive development in the Ethiopian higher education seems to go unnoticed. Following a 2017 directive issued by the Ministry of Education (MoE), public universities have started to use a more open, competitive, and transparent process for the selection and appointment of presidents. In the past four months alone, three institutions, Bahir Dar, Debre Markos and Addis Ababa universities have gone through this process to appoint new presidents. In doing so, the universities not only advertised the position, internally and externally, they also reported the progress of the selection process on their websites and social media outlets.

This is a significant departure from previous practice when university presidents were appointed by the Ministry in a more opaque process. In many ways, it is also a positive step towards the overall wellbeing of the institutions and the higher education system in general. First, open competition encourages diverse individuals interested in the job and who believe they are qualified, to apply. Addis Ababa University (AAU), for instance, received an impressive 22 completed applications. Of these, a little more than half were from within AAU itself, while the rest included applicants from academic and non-academic institutions in Ethiopia, foreign universities, and members of the diaspora.

Second, this move can be seen as a step towards the professionalization of higher education leadership. In addition to academic qualifications and experience, the criteria include the presentation of a strategic plan that, among other things, covers enrollment management, revenue generation, and the promotion of academic excellence.  It also weighs a range of skills and competencies of the candidate from strategic management and academic leadership to communication and networking. Yet, this is only one step needed throughout the higher education governance structure, above and below the level of the president.

Third, transparency demonstrated in the selection of the presidents can be a stepping stone towards a more open and accountable institutional governance. This is not, by any means to claim that the process was fully transparent or fair. However, if the rationale that demanded this kind of process in the selection of the president is applied at other levels of the governance structure, and if lessons learned from this process are built upon, it can move the institution in the right direction. Besides, the directive provides that a president can be removed from his or her position before the end of the six-year term, based on the results of their annual performance evaluation or “in exigent circumstances and cases of malfeasance.” Considering that universities are among the most inefficient public institutions tarnished by misuse of public money (according to the successive reports of the auditor general), the new practice can potentially improve accountability. 

Fourth, although it accounts for only 20% of the overall evaluation, the new selection procedure gives a voice to the university community. At AAU, for example, candidates were interviewed by a representative panel from the university community that included members of the senate, local and expatriate faculty, administrative staff, undergraduate and graduate students, special needs students, female students, and retired faculty members. In addition, a considerable number of people also aired opinions on social media. Such an inclusive process helps ease the inherently distrustful relationship between university leadership and the rest of the university community, particularly the academic staff. In the long run, this can translate into more participatory institutional governance anchored in sense of belonging and shared responsibility.

In the conversations that followed communications on social media, there were some who expressed doubts and concerns along with others who took a more optimistic tone. Some were skeptical about the extent to which the process can be free of government influence and how much fair it was for everyone who was, or wanted to be, involved. Others had a more cynical view that the whole thing might have been staged to make it look like a transparent competition, while it was predetermined who would get the position. The fact that the selection committee can only nominate five candidates, from which the board will recommend three finalists to the minister, who makes the final decision, is seen by some as undermining the whole process. Some doubt the sustainability of such practice, while others point out the irony in the idea of having an open and participatory process for the selection of a university president at a time when the broader political structure is on a brink of collapse. Their point is that this process in itself is unlikely to bring about any meaningful change until the bigger problems in the political and bureaucratic spheres are resolved.

Overall, one can see that concerns about the process are centered on whether professionalism can truly triumph over political favoritism in the leadership and administration of Ethiopian higher education. These concerns are not entirely unfounded. Witnessing a university president get a political appointment at the end of his or her term of office makes it difficult not to think that their presidency was more political selection than professional in the first place. The lack of clarity and inclusion has continued for far too long that the transition to the practice envisioned by the new directive will not be easy or quick.

The legitimacy of these concerns is further substantiated by two factors. First, there does not seem to be a commensurate reform in the way board members of public universities are appointed. Of course, the directive has stipulated a list of criteria that describe who is eligible to become a board member. However, not only are the criteria very general and somewhat arbitrary, the responsibility for selecting and appointing all members of the board is entirely with the minister. Rather, the directive overrules the mandate of the university president who, according to Article 45(3) of the higher education proclamation, can nominate three voting members of the board, in consultation with the university council and senate. This, besides being a legal blunder, goes contrary to the direction taken in the selection of the president. Hence, the current practice that populates boards of public universities largely with politicians, is not guaranteed to change any time soon.

Second, studies have indicated that the autonomy of public universities in Ethiopia is limited. Despite the long list of duties and responsibilities delegated to presidents in the higher education proclamation, important decisions such as on academic programs and admission and enrollment of students are still made by the ministry. This is often explained by vested political interests of the government. However, these arrangements in the board structure and the centralized control of public institutions by the ministry restrict the autonomy of the university presidents from introducing reforms and far-reaching changes in the way higher education is conducted in their institution.

It is, therefore, very important not to see this recent development as an end in itself. While the introduction of the new selection processes is one step forward towards a more participatory and accountable institutional system, its effectiveness depends on parallel reforms in the governance structure at all levels. The major work is still ahead to create a more participatory and inclusive processes, at all levels, which accommodate diversity of opinions based on their merits.

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