Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Sinecures and Sunsets
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?
Sometimes one just has to live with some things which are not one's choosing - like inherited heirlooms one doesn't want.
If there is only one in your division, team up with another division to merge sinecures and call it cross-disciplinary innovation.
I would recommend using your contract to ensure that each employee has assigned duties and carries them out.
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.
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!
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."
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.
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.
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