Books, Crooks and Punishment

Posted by jlubans on October 23, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Book Thief, REALLY?

Usually I write about leadership and followership and other items of organizational life.
But, now and then I stray into different pastures.
Today’s blog is about book crime and punishment; specifically, about how judges sentence book thieves.
I last wrote about book thieves in 2013, “Book Thieves and Other Library Scoundrels” and "More Scoundrels, Knaves and Varlets.
Invariably, victims (librarians, teachers, cultural leaders) who testify against book thieves, call for harsh penalties – at least for some jail time.
Just as invariably, judges tend toward leniency regardless of how egregious the crime.
A recent story about rare book thievery (an inside job) at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh epitomizes this judicial attitude: one of the two thieves was sentenced to three years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation and the other received four years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation.
In California there was a similar outcome: the crook’s six-month sentence to county jail, was suspended, and he was placed on probation and ordered to pay restitution to the University of California and to booksellers he had tricked into buying stolen goods.
So, none of the “perps” went to jail.
Why all this judicial forgiveness? Why are jail sentences often suspended and fines reduced?
Is it because the crooks come clean and offer to return not just the "caught red-handed" loot -but other thefts yet to be found out?
In other words, prosecutors make a deal with the criminal in order to retrieve as many stolen books as possible.
Or, is it because book thieves tend to be sad sacks; misfits on society’s fringes thereby earning judicial empathy?
Or, does the judge buy the thief’s story that he was never in it for the money; rather he succumbed to a psychological need, however twisted.
In the case of the Pittsburg heist, the thief used the money to pay his children’s private college tuition.
What a dad!
Did that evoke judicial sympathy?
Or, is stealing a book - snatched in the dark with no weapon beyond a cheese sandwich and a thermos of coffee while hiding in the toilet, waiting for the library to close – far removed from an armed stick-up?
And, then there’s the laxity of the victimized library along with the complicity of the buyers of stolen books which might pressure the judge into not making too big a deal of it.
Sure, some collectors buy the offered item and believe it to be an honest transaction.
Others - especially antiquarians - can smell a rare book, can sense rarity by its heft, can tell in a single glance at the binding and paper that something is too good to be withdrawn, as purported, and serendipitously found in a Friends of the Library Booksale.
Indeed, is the rare book collector truthful when he claims the stolen book was stamped as “Withdrawn” from X Library? Is the presence of that simple rubber stamp – easily purchased at any office store - truly exculpatory?
It’s one thing to believe the “Withdrawn” stamp for books like some of mine – yes, I have run across, with tears in my eyes, a few of my books withdrawn and offered up for .50 cents.
It’s totally another to believe in the “Withdrawn” stamp inside what is likely a unique book. A knowledgeable book collector might want to confirm that book’s provenance. Due diligence in such a case is easy: call and ask the withdrawing library to confirm.
So, it gets complicated for the judge.
While balking at judicial leniency the letters to the court never spell out what the “harsh” punishment should be.
Here are some suggestions about the degrees of severity and implied incarceration.
An Inside job, a betrayal of trust, should result in a greater punishment.
I'd add a year for the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” insider. Such a disguise may manifest itself as either a fuss budget or an oleous priest of high culture who keeps readers away from precious books to do his dark deeds with a free hand.
Mutilation (slicing out of pages, illustrations, maps, tearing off book covers and otherwise disturbing the integrity of the book), should increase the punishment.
There’s a difference between a shlub who steals from a provided list of books and an antiquarian who knows the library’s ins and outs and who may have carte blanche to library vaults. Judicially, the former gets off with probation while the latter goes to jail.
The professor who steals a book deserves a greater punishment than the undergraduate thief of a textbook.
Finally, book theft damages the public good. There should be a cost assessment of the societal damages – from inconvenience to intellectual loss – and figured into the sentencing.

Copyright (all text) John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #4: The Specialist

Posted by jlubans on October 17, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: In Admiration of the First Celebrity Specialist, Lem Putt
*

The Specialist continues my reflections on What I Would Do Differently (WIWDD) in my career.
Most organizations of a certain size feature specialists. These are usually one or two person units with an often-esoteric focus, not unlike Lem Putt who specialized in outhouse construction: one holers and up.
Now, most specialists, like Lem, earn their keep. They provide good service and benefit the organization. But, and this is a big but, a few specialists are in it more for themselves than the organization. Of course, we all put ourselves first - which is healthy - but we make sure what we do ultimately benefits the organization.
One time I was asked/assigned to supervise a specialist. I knew full well this was a problematic individual. He used his position for self-aggrandizement and he had, if not an unsavory reputation it was a sketchy one.
He could be charming, yet prickly and nasty, and could “go musicologist” (like “going postal”) viciously fighting over minutiae. He had made enemies but, to his credit, he did have some supporters.
Since our environment was higher education, part of how he operated was much like many other professors. Those with tenure have a great deal of freedom and, if they engage in wrong doing, are rarely held accountable.
My new supervisee was a quasi-faculty member, so some of his behavior emulated the professoriate. Bear in mind that the faculty member is a solo player. She may collaborate on research and publication but she remains a soloist.
My specialist failed to make his specialty relevant to the students and other professors; instead he focused on narrow research topics.
Often he would be invited to do research at exotic locations. (I found out that many in his circle of specialists – including influential donors - played a round robin of inviting each other.
(Certainly, this goes on at many campuses not just for my specialist and his international cronies.)
However, there is a certain shamelessness, I’ve discovered, in a small segment of the faculty. They count on not being called out and if put on the spot, wriggling out of any accountability.
Ambiguity can be a scoundrel’s best friend.
WWIDD: I should have questioned this new assignment much more closely than I did. I’d ask, Why me?
Why is the previous supervisor unable to continue?
I should have had a frank talk with my boss to get answers to:
What was he expecting me to do?
When the specialist again did something ethically questionable, what was I to do?
How much support would I have from the boss?
Fundamentally, I should have gotten an answer as to how important was what the Specialist supposedly was doing. Did what this person do matter to the organization? How much did it matter?
I had learned over many years that higher education avoids being embarrassed. If push came to shove, as they say, would my boss back me in disciplining my new charge?
And, I should have spoken with the “old” supervisor.
What was his experience?
Why was he willing to give up this direct report?
Too blithely, I accepted this assignment.
My supervision of the specialist was how I worked with all of my two dozen or so direct reports. Regular meetings and no micromanaging. Instead I modeled what was expected: high quality and respectful treatment of clients with careful attention to new initiatives and technological applications. Given freedom, some of my direct reports soared.
Others, had a hard time lifting off. They obviously needed far more guidance and direction than I provided.
The Specialist, as it turned out, continued his self-serving ways. Marginally, what he did was beneficial but generally he was the beneficiary more than the organization.
Dismayingly, as soon as I took over, his previous supervisor began to carp about the Specialist’s performance. That criticism was aimed at me as much as the Specialist! I was judged guilty by association!
While the Specialist did some of his job, it was never really what I was hoping for. The Specialist and I should have had a frank talk early on. I should have provided more direction and been clearer about expectations. Instead we muddled along.
I don’t recall reviewing a job description. That might have helped. My expecting him (and others) to figure it for themselves, was not always the best strategy.
Probably I should have refused to take on the Specialist job; I had plenty to do.

*As immortalized in Charles “Chick” Sale's best seller of 1930, The Specialist.

Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD*, #3: Avoiding Conflict

Posted by jlubans on October 06, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: A corner of the “Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument


The first two of my WIWDD* reflections are here and here.
This third reflection is about avoiding conflict.
I made a case study of it to use in my teaching and titled it Jack and Jill.
Like the nursery rhyme, it did not work out well: Jack “fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.”
Jill was a department head who had long used her negativity to get what she wanted. Jack was me, her supervisor.
I’d gone along with Jill because – her dog in the manger attitude aside – she and her department did a good job. Unlike some aggrieved bureaucrats, she did not punish her clients.
I stayed pretty much silent on her negative views and of her victimhood cultivation. I largely ignored the real possibility that her negative attitude permeated the work of the department and her peer relationships.
Let’s be honest, I obviously was avoiding a “difficult conversation”.
At least I could have made an effort to help, and not wait until it was too late to do anything.
I think Jill trusted very few people and – based on her gloomy interpretations of others’ actions – very likely had a touch of paranoia.
Alas, I said nothing.
If I thought about it, it was that probably things would get better. Given my strong support for her department and its mission, surely she would gain a sunnier disposition. Dream on.
Jill firmly believed, I think, it was her whining and complaining that got things for her department.
And, my avoiding a difficult conversation was encouraging the bad behavior.
Finally, I did take action when I found out she’d been fudging her production statistics.
Following a department heads meeting about our organization wide budget crunch in which she displayed a pit bull territoriality and offered no help, I asked for her to come speak with me.
Exasperated, I told her that I was disappointed and embarrassed with how she constantly complained in meetings. I then asked her since this job was so difficult whether she would like to step down and let someone else do it.
I had no one in mind, but thought maybe she’d opt for a break.
Wrong!
Given her probable paranoia, she thought I was attacking her unfairly and that I was wanting to fire her. (I suppose I was.)
Afterwards, I learned that she complained bitterly about me to my boss.
What would I do differently?
First, I should have asked my boss for guidance before having it out with Jill.
I should have known there was no easy fix and that my confronting her would have repercussion.
Nor should I have held the meeting while angry.
Years earlier, when I hired her, I should have made clear what I expected from my direct reports. Namely, I did not want to hear complaints unless they came with solutions. And, if there were no solutions, then we needed to move on and focus the discussion on the doable.
If I had started giving Jill feedback sooner, maybe we’d not have had the blow up.
For example, I could have asked her early on if she would be open to my observations on how she interacted with her peers.
If she agreed, I’d tell her what she did well and what she could have done better.
No telling the outcome, but maybe we would not have had this unhappy ending. A year later she left for another organization and rarely spoke to me except when obligated to do so.
Interestingly, when I used the Jack & Jill case study in a management workshop the participants sided with Jill and blamed Jack for the problem.
I can see why.
But, what I found a little hard to believe was that they (unlike Jack) would confront Jill immediately and give her guidance on how to improve the relationship.
Most managers – not just Jack -have a hard time with conflict; of the five conflict modes - competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating and avoiding - the latter three see a lot more use than does the best option, collaborating.

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Caption: Don't we all?

*WIWDD=What I Would Do Differently

Copyright All Text John Lubans 2020