Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Sinecures and Sunsets

Too many management books are written from the perspective of the CEO. Most managers aren’t CEO’s; they’re somewhere in the middle, trying to negotiate between directives from above and facts on the ground below. Reading about Steve Jobs can be fun, but if you’re a regional sales manager, it’s of limited use. He has room to move that you simply don’t.

The same flaw bedevils much of academic culture in discussions of academic administration. “The Administration” is characterized as an eternal monolith, as if everyone in it is part of the hive mind. But that’s simply not true. People come and go, and that necessarily means that they ‘inherit’ arrangements made by predecessors. Sometimes those inheritances are great, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, addressing them can be hellaciously difficult.

In a mature organization, you’ll inevitably find a few very comfortable niches that some difficult people have carved for themselves. Typically, someone years ago (and long gone) decided that it was easier to buy peace than it was to continue to fight the same battle, so they bought off a prima donna with some ill-defined sinecure. It solved the immediate problem, but was never really rational from an organizational level. Now, many years later, new administrators are facing much tighter budgets, and that sinecure is starting to look hard to justify.

Good management practice says that you define the desired outcomes before you establish something, and you set out the criteria for evaluating success (or a time-defined sunset clause) in advance. Then, at some reasonable moment, you measure the outcomes against the criteria and decide whether to expand, continue, shrink, or kill it. But the new manager who inherits a sinecure doesn’t have the option of going back in time and doing that. The murky mission has become a part of the organization, with various people filling the explanatory vacuum with reasons that serve purposes of their own. You start to hear phrases like “paid my dues,” “past practice,” and “commitment to...” The arguments for its continued existence hearken back to circumstances from decades past, recalled with frustrating inconsistency.

If you take it on anyway, you get hit with “The Administration is at fault for not defining this upfront.” That would be mildly compelling if The Administration were actually continuous. But the logic of that argument suggests that a mistake made three predecessors ago must stand for all time. It doesn’t make sense. Yes, it would have been better if the sinecure had come with a sunset clause, but it didn’t.

When budgets are relatively flush, these issues aren’t so difficult. You can replace one boondoggle with another, but define the new one more intelligently. Alternately, you can offer buyouts. And sometimes you get lucky and get retirements at the right times. But when budgets are being cut and the retirements don’t happen at the right moments, buying your way out of the problem just isn’t an option.

Wise and worldly readers, there’s an awful gap in the literature that needs to be filled. Have you seen an effective way for someone who inherits a sinecure to bring the sunset?

If you can't get rid of it, put a beautiful drape or scarf on that elephant with sinecure in the living room and publicly act like that elephant is an integral cornerstone of what made the college, business, home, institution great.

Sometimes one just has to live with some things which are not one's choosing - like inherited heirlooms one doesn't want.
If you have two sinecures, merge the positions while making a big show of administrative belt-tightening and taking one for the team.

If there is only one in your division, team up with another division to merge sinecures and call it cross-disciplinary innovation.
What is a sinecure
Dean Dad:

I would recommend using your contract to ensure that each employee has assigned duties and carries them out.

Anonymous @10:37:

Try Google. I just looked at the Wiki entry, and it gives a pretty good description. Only flaw is that it omits that "cura" is also the root of curate, a parish priest. The term "sine cura" thus describes a person who is essentially a priest without a parish, hence a minister without portfolio, a no-show job, etc.
I still don't understand the term or the whole point of this post for that matter.
Anon @11:51 It's a manufactured position that takes a deadwood, poisonous or otherwise impossible person and puts them into a place where they usually teach very little, if at all, while holding a grandiose title of "Executive Institutional Director of *insert disciplinary name here*" or something of the sort.

When you're dealing with someone who has an expensive contract or tenure, moving them sideways into a sinecure seems like a better option that a protracted legal fight. At least, until economic problems make the sinecure seem like a really expensive option!
The best answer for Anon might be if DD described the particular instance, since it would no doubt be as entertaining as a Monty Python sketch, but I understand why he can't do so. Does he have an illiterate English teacher who is now Assistant Chairman for the Prevention of Bookworms? An innumerate mathematician who is now Deputy Vice Chair for Dusting Punched Cards? A former Dean who literally knows where the bodies are buried? Or, most common of all, a former college President who is now tenured Professor and Director of the Center for Obscure Thought?

That said, some actual unreliable advice:

“The Administration is at fault for not defining this upfront.”

"I agree, which is why I am trying to correct that error. I figure that this oversight might even be why a previous Dean was fired."
I don't understand the problem statement. Why can't you just eliminate the job position, effective end of this annual year, and be done with it? I don't understand the constraints. If there's some reason why you can't do that, then we need to know the reason, as it will probably affect the viability of other options.

Anyway, other options to consider, if for some unspecified reason you can't do that:

1) Re-org. You take the organization that they're associated with, announce a re-organization (e.g., merger with another organization, with many changes of titles), and in the re-org, the sinecure just happens to disappear. If called on, cover your mouth and say "Oops! How did that happen?"

2) Establish a uniform policy for workload in the department. My department has a uniform policy for teaching workload, with policy on when teaching release is approved. Teaching release is requested and approved on an annual basis; there are no permanent teaching release exemptions. If this sounds hard, create it now, approve the sinecure for this year, then next year you happen to not approve it due to budgetary conditions.

3) (nasty, unfair, not recommended:) Pile on unwelcome committee service and unpopular teaching duties on the person who isn't pulling their weight.
Engineeringprof - because the *person* in that sinecure isn't going away. If that person is, say, a tenured full prof who got stuck into the nice little sinecure to keep him/her out of everybody else's hair, then removing the sinecure causes two problems. The first is that now you have Prof. Joykill back in rotation, and the second is you have really, seriously, ticked him/her off by removing the little fiefdom.

Further, bureaucracy - any bureaucracy - is like kudzu. It is extremely hard to kill. Even what appear to be the most ineffective programs will have their supporters/constituents, and nothing rallies constituents like a threat to kill their pet program. So now, you have enraged, PITA, tenured person with a following, stomping around and making life difficult for everybody.

That's the whole reason these people get sinecures in the first place - to buy them off and get them to leave everybody else alone (so we can actually do real work).

The better approach would have been not to create these positions to start with, and to have dealt with the person years ago. But often, one inherits these arrangements, as DD points out. Then what?

As for solutions: I like two of them (one I've seen work)

1. Pile on public praise & raise profile of said position. When the spotlight is on, maybe something good will actually happen. (a la anon 7:04)

2. Increase review standards. (I saw this one work!) People who are just hiding out and drawing huge paychecks, and who are nearing retirement/have other options, might bail, rather than meet the new standard or deal with the consequences of a negative review.
It's stuff like this that make me SO GLAD I got off the admin track a few years ago, and went back to teaching.
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