The Hiring of Jessica Dorrell and the Question of Merit in America

Before 2 weeks ago, if she came in your office, you'd probably hire her too.

I'm as fatigued as everybody else regarding the entire motorcycle escapade, but there is one issue that's just come up in the last few days that I have a problem with. Yesterday, Sports Illustrated published this piece about how Bobby Petrino used the athletic department administration to circumvent the usual hiring policies and "game the system" to make Jessica Dorrell the ill-fated Student Athlete Development Coordinator.

Sports Illustrated was able to analyze all 159 applications and determined that Dorrell was not the most qualified candidate for the position. Based on the job qualifications listed in the job advertisement and the experiences listed on the resumes, other people were more qualified (they stopped short of saying someone else should have gotten the job) for the position.

My response: so? Are we really going to pretend that every job in America is filled by the most qualified applicant?

I'm not suggesting that Dorrell should have been hired, or that I don't have sympathy for those who were passed over in her favor. But let's get off our high horse about everything being based on merit. That's a joke. Anyone who's ever been in the predicament of being forced to look for a job has likely seen people in nearly every industry get jobs based on things like what their last name is, who their friends are, which fraternity/sorority they're in, who they're married to, promotions based on nothing but seniority, or simply how attractive a person is.

I'm not defending this practice at all. As a writer, I wish all the best writing jobs were filled by the best writers. But this is how the world works. How often are we told about the importance of networking and making connections? There is an entire industry around conventions and conferences that people, companies, and even public organizations spend hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars to attend just so they can rub elbows with people who might be able to give them, or help them one day, get a job. Despite how great a resume is, most people have experienced applying for jobs they're perfectly qualified for but not getting so much as a phone call or an email saying the position has been filled.

The likely runner-up to Dorrell's position, according to Sports Illustrated, was Ben Wilkerson, a former four-year starter for the LSU football team and was a player for the Atlanta Falcons during Petrino's tenure there in 2007. There's no way to know for sure, but it's worth asking, did Wilkerson's prior connection to Petrino have any influence as to whether he even got an interview?

If a hiring were as simple as picking the most qualified candidate, there would be no need for interviews. People would be picked simply from resumes. People get hired partly on qualification and partly simply on how much someone likes them. And, often, some sort of personal connection can unfairly elevate someone's standing. That's why politicians make an effort simply to shake hands with as many people as possible. That personal connection makes someone stand out more in a person's mind.

There are several lessons to be learned from Petrino's scandal, but the issue of hiring based on merit shouldn't be ignored. Of course, Petrino should have been much, much more objective in the hiring of a position worth devoting a $55k salary to. But he wasn't, and we shouldn't pretend that he's the only one doing it. It's widespread. The world is full of qualified, talented people that don't have connections nor look like they were recently college volleyball players. Those people deserve full consideration.

If there's no other reason to hire people by the book, consider this: Dorrell was hired March 28th, after the university allowed Petrino to waive the usual 30-day job-posting procedure. If the university had held the position open for the 30 days that are normally required, Dorrell would not have been an employee of the athletic department on April 1st, the day of the crash. Yes, Petrino would have still been outed as far as having an inappropriate relationship, but the school would not have had the problem of dealing with any threats of lawsuits as a result of Dorrell's hiring.

We'll probably never know if that would've been enough to save Petrino's job, but it may have at least been a more difficult question than it was. So the lesson here, a hiring of this nature is hardly an isolated incident. Petrino should have paid more attention to actual merit, but so should everyone else.

Doc Harper is a regular contributor to and You can email him at and follow his thoughts and observations on Twitter @doc_harper.

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