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A Meeting of the Ivory Tower by Mark Keane

© Mark Keane

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G is late for the meeting. This time, he is going to take a stand against mediocrity. G is tired of being forced-fed poisonous pap and asking for more. He climbs the stairs of the brutalist Administration and Services Building and goes down the brown carpeted corridor, past doors bearing grandiose titles. He slips into the meeting room and sits beside the physicist D. The white walls are bare apart from a single framed notice. Two rubber plants stand at one end of the room, the leaves drooping and brown at the tips.

Five are present, C has yet to arrive. G nods to A, historian and authority on medieval religion, who sighs and looks at the ceiling. D is fidgeting with a foil wrapped sandwich that sits beside a banana. He can hardly be thinking of having his lunch now. E, Professor of English Literature, coughs and splutters, hawking up phlegm that he spits into a handkerchief. He sits hunched over in his chair, angry comb-over, blotchy face and bulging eyes.

G nudges the unoccupied chair closer to the economist F who is engrossed in his iPad. B spies this move and smiles to herself. She has it in for G because she overheard him pass a remark about her sizeable arse. All he said was that they would have to widen the lectern for her lectures. Not that she has to give any lectures, B is such a success she is not required to teach.

G is a mathematician, his particular academic know-how the ontological nature of time. Right now, he favours eternalism over presentism. The current present is no more real than the future and if what is was, then the future is the present, the meeting is in the past and he is back in his office, playing Wordtris on his computer. He thinks of the green letter blocks floating down the screen. His highest score is 110 for “wretched”.

The door swings open and in comes C, Chairman of the University Strategy Committee. C is small, in his late fifties with thinning grey hair that is brushed forward. The thick lenses of his glasses give him a mildly bewildered look. He is wearing a striped shirt and fawn Farah trousers. C could pass for a supervisor in a warehouse, someone who has made good after years on the shop floor. He carries himself with a belligerence that is accentuated by his slight build. C holds an endowed Chair in Electrical Engineering.

He takes the seat between G and F and gives each of those present a three second examination. What abomination is he going to serve up today?
“Well, gentlemen,” C says and coughs apologetically. “Excuse me, my apologies Professor B.”
B simpers and shifts her big arse in her seat. She is an exotic inclusion in this lacklustre gathering of British academics. B is from a small Iberian town and was raised on equivocation and mean gossip, the ideal grounding for a career in third level education.
“We must be more sensitive than ever in matters pertaining to gender.” C looks around the table, defying the male members of the committee to disagree. There is no disagreement.

“Now, to business.” C pauses for a moment. “I am sick and tired of the whinging in this university.” He glares at D, his scowl taking in the banana. “Take our on-line questionnaire. A simple request, no more than ten minutes to complete. Are our colleagues so wrapped up in their ground breaking research that they can’t spare the time for such a simple task? What has been the response I ask you?” C directs the question at E.
“Low,” comes the answer.
“Low indeed, a paltry 17% of the academic staff. It is the function of this committee to mobilise the troops and ensure they are engaged in the process.”

“Are we supposed to hold a gun to their heads?” G asks.
“There are so many of these requests, the staff tend to ignore them,” A adds his tuppence worth.
“Only 4% of the respondents were able to give our core values. How is that possible when they’re displayed all over the campus?” C shakes his head. He’s right of course, it beggars belief. G is staring at those values, laminated and framed on the wall before him. “Academic excellence, intellectual integrity, freedom of expression, diversity and tolerance.” C taps the table as he lists them.

“Final year students must be clear on the qualities they have acquired from our academic programmes.”
“And what might they be?” G enquires.
“You obviously haven’t read the briefing papers from the Quality Enhancement Team. Our students are creative, critically minded, independent problem solvers. Make sure they know this.”
“We could begin each lecture with that as a mantra,” A suggests.
The assiduous D enters the fray, his voice shrill. “It worked when we explained to the students what feedback meant and we received a score of very satisfactory for feedback on the student satisfaction survey.”

G regrets agreeing to join the committee. Better the fool’s paradise of not knowing than seeing the grotesque masquerade at close quarters. The tacit restraint of university governance does not permit opposition or disagreement. It is an unspoken rule never to express anything heartfelt or say what you really mean. They are a dreary lot. D is plodding and fussy and if affable enough, G would never willingly spend time with him outside of work. B is an opportunist and the cards are stacked in her favour. A is remote. F keeps to himself. E hides behind an anti-social mask. As for C, he has no significance as an individual; his significance is as Head of Strategy.

“Back to the questionnaire.” C hasn’t finished with the questionnaire. “Nothing but the same petty grievances, the same old gripes about inadequate resources, lack of communication and declining standards. Nothing progressive, nothing forward looking and I hold this committee responsible.”
“But that may be how the staff feel,” D pipes up.
C isn’t interested in how the staff feels. “And the insubordinate tone, the lack of respect shown to university management. Some of the responses are bordering on libellous but make no mistake, we have the names of those respondents.”
“Surely the questionnaire is anonymous.”
“Nothing is anonymous. If the whingers want to remain anonymous then they shouldn’t complete questionnaires.”

G has to hand it to C, he’s an amusing character in his own way.
“This is what the staff think.” D is sticking to his point.
“And it’s your job to make them think differently. You need to provide leadership on this. It’s your responsibility to advance the aims of the university.”
“We have more pressing matters.” E grumbles.
“Professor E, if you check your contract you will see that in the chain of command, I am your line manager and you are required to follow my instructions.”
Mobilising the troops, chain of command, leadership and line managers. It is the language of the university militia and G can feel his soul shrivel.

“Annual Reviews are due and we will be looking closely at those on red traffic lights.”
The calculated reference to traffic lights is like a punch to G’s gut. The yearly summing up and apportioning of blame, the judgement and revelation of shameful inadequacy. A red traffic light for underperformance, amber to denote room for improvement and the green of success, B’s colour. There is no one better than C at utilising the power of the red traffic light, the ignominy of not securing enough external funding and having insufficient cause to blow your trumpet. G knows he is on red and far from amber. C is not amusing, not even in the abstract. In a reality where coercion prevails, C is a malignant force.

“This business with overseas degrees is a fiasco.” What’s this, a non-sequitur from E, which is unlike him. He must have been stung by C’s jibe about his contract and following orders.
“Our campus in the Carpathians is a resounding success.” C is quick to set E straight. “We have a brand that is gaining recognition. Corporate Communications are working around the clock to raise our global profile. In order to deal with underrepresented ethic groups, we have a new tag-line that will appear on all official advertising; “Colour Blind for Farsighted Education.” You can expect to see it displayed prominently in the main reception area.”
C neglects to add that it will be accompanied by a magnified image of the proud B, from the waist up, with a quote concerning inclusivity.

“The world has changed and moved on whether you like it or not.” C pushes his glasses further up his nose.
“I believe it is the same world.” D has to chip in with a pedantic correction.
“But different times,” B interjects helpfully.
G seizes his chance. “We should be above money making rackets.”
C is irked by this, a tell-tale reddening of his face. “I’m sorry it upsets you, G. If it’s so distasteful, does that mean you will forgo your monthly salary?”
“That remark is shameful.” As shameful as G’s toothless display of umbrage. It’s degrading when you stay silent and demeaning when you speak up. There’s no question of back-up from his colleagues.

“Do you have any idea what the economic turnover is for this university?” A rhetorical question from C.
“How could we when you refuse to reveal the figures.” F, Chair in Empirical Macroeconomics, has put aside his iPad.
“The university is far from operating at a profit. We must do things differently now.”
“And why is that?” E asks.
C blows out his cheeks and throws up his hands in frustration.
B comes to his aid. “We should not waste our valuable time arguing. You can follow up these matters with Professor C off-line.” B is a great one for private meetings with C.

C offers her a thin smile. “I like nothing better than a good argument to arrive at a way forward but I can see the value of feminine delicacy to reach a consensus. Remember, I am here to do your bidding.”
C waits, willing them to question his authority. They are silent.
“I can report the remarkable achievement of our Minerva initiative. In the past year, we have not hired a single male to an academic post. This will go some way to gaining a Gold Standard in constructive bias. We must recognise the sterling efforts of Professor B and her focus team in transforming gender equality.”
B purses her lips in a moue of conceit.

“At present, only 30% of our academics are female. The target is 70%.” C likes setting targets. “The era of favouring a select group is over.”
“Then the outlook is grim for talented young male candidates. Should they consider changing gender?” E is not joking as E is humourless.
“The transgender sector is under-represented and we will get to them but for now they must wait their turn. Make no mistake, we are always keen to recruit hungry young academics, regardless of gender.”
The word “hungry” hangs in the air.

“It is critical that more staff declare their sexual orientation. Other institutions are investing heavily in this metric. All hands to the pump and this committee can take a lead.” C fixed his gaze on F. “What do you say Professor F, an encouraging nudge from you, pressure brought to bear in your community.”
F is speechless, seething with inexpressible outrage but C takes no notice. Sensitivity and tact only get in the way when formulating a strategy to advance the aims of the university.

G’s attention drifts as it always does at these meetings and he finds himself thinking about a friend who is an electrician. “It’s well for you,” G’s friend likes to say, “up in your Ivory Tower.” He takes the conventional view of academics as unworldly dreamers, high-minded bookworms disconnected from the daily grind of the working man, elitists consumed by erudition. There is a casual animosity for cossetted academics but there is also respect for the unknowable brilliance of those who occupy the Ivory Tower. “As far as highbrow idealism is concerned,” G has told his friend, “nothing could be further from reality.” And what a disgraceful reality it is, the scams and dogged exploitation, the blind ambition, self-promotion, cronyism and mania for money. The thinkers and philosophers are electricians, plumbers and stevedores, not the scheming shopkeepers who operate the tills of the Ivory Tower.

The sound of C’s voice drags G back to the room.
“Gender aside, academic staffing needs a shake-up.”
C is in his element now and is not going to be derailed.
“We will soon be rolling out the Koalemos scheme, which will formalise arrangements to recruit the learning challenged.”
“You aren’t serious,” G blurts out.
“I certainly am. Koalemos is the first step in a concerted effort to target academic staff with non-conventional backgrounds, those with applied rather than esoteric skills.”
“Are you saying the university plans to hire the illiterate and innumerate on the faculty?” As soon as he says it, G feels foolish.
“I did not say that. We need to be ahead of the pack and take the lead in employing academic staff who are grounded in the reality of the market-place. I have been in discussion with the Chancellor and we are going to pull out the stops on this one.”
C leans back in his chair, clearly pleased with himself.

“The rewards to our students will be immense. They will receive training in practicalities. We are here to deliver the next generation of business men and women and I look to you as budding entrepreneurs. Why limit your research to dry publications in obscure journals that will only be read by other irrelevant academics. Where’s the real impact in that? Take Professor B and her spin-out company, winner of two enterprise awards, a magnificent success story.”
Take Professor B, G wants to say, take her as far away as possible.
“How does society benefit from this university?” C doesn’t wait for an answer. “The list of honorary doctorates this coming graduation has not been released but I can tell you it includes leading industrialists who have considerable influence in deciding education policy. What’s more, these are men and women who did not need to go to university in order to achieve success.” C lets them draw their own conclusions.

“The student experience is paramount. Education is no longer a matter of teaching, of listening and receiving. Passive learning is obsolete. Education is about knowledge exchange.”
“Exchange presupposes reciprocity,” E notes.
“Are you saying that you can’t learn from your students? My daughter and her friends complain constantly about hopeless, boring lecturers. Everything they need is on-line. The Student Engagement Task Force has tabled an innovative proposal to involve our students in knowledge exchange. Those in later years can pass on their knowledge to junior students. The second years will instruct the first years, the third the second and so on. In this way, only the information our students find useful is passed on. This should propel us up the student satisfaction league table. What’s more, it will cut out unnecessary fluff and free academic staff to focus on new business opportunities and delivering on impact.”
“So understanding and ability count for nothing.” G catches A’s eye and sees his annoyance. G is embarrassing himself. Worse still, he is embarrassing the others.

C glances at the clock. “We need to wind things up here as I have an important meeting with the Chancellor regarding restructuring. We can’t persist with the current retrograde groupings of Schools and Faculties. Division along Arts, Science and Engineering has passed its sell by date. Greater flexibility is required if we are to promote cross fertilisation and inter-disciplinarity. You are aware, D, of the move to combine Physics with Mechanical Engineering. The English Department is definitely in need of rejigging, too much Shakespeare and not enough attention given to grammar and composition.”
“There is virtually no Shakespeare on our curriculum,” E remarks.
“And there should be less. Realignment with the Business School will add greater focus. Our graduates should be skilled at writing business cases, bids and tenders, concise e-mails and clear text messages. And G, a heads-up for you, Mathematics will be accommodated within Accountancy.”

G does some mathematics of his own and reaches the same conclusion as before. Retirement is not feasible, he has too many years to go and not enough money in the bank. Could he find work as a labourer? It would be more rewarding but he lacks the physical stamina. Maybe there are openings for shepherds or lighthouse keepers.

“There will be opportunities to participate in sandpit events and management sub-committees. The onus is on you to come up with fresh ideas.”
There can’t be long to go, G thinks, but C has not quite finished.
“The parents of our students expect value for their money. Something must be done about retention rates. D, what’s happening in Physics where we see a 15% wastage of the cohort in first year? Consider this an official rap on the knuckles. And A, only 66% of the final year in your discipline received first class honours last year. In English we had 60%, which is unacceptable and a frankly disastrous 45% in Mathematics. G you should look to Professor B who is graduating over 80% of her students with firsts. I know she will only be too happy to share her insight and best practice in knowledge transfer.”

G wants nothing to do with B’s insight or best practice not that she has the slightest intention of sharing anything with him.
“Perhaps Professor B, you could inform our colleagues of the new exam arrangements.”
B is startled, panic flashing in her dark eyes. C has sprung this on her.
“Well, these are very preliminary and not properly developed.” She stumbles over the words, her accent more pronounced.
“I’m sure you can give some idea of what’s in the offing.”
B is unprepared for this. “Our students feel threatened in large exam halls and underperform in a hostile environment.”

G hears himself say, “Just hand out the answers with the exam and be done with it.”
“Our pledge is to cater to each student’s individual needs with bespoke exam rooms.” B is delighted by this turn of phrase.
“We don’t have the infrastructure.” The hapless D expresses his concern.
“Scrap the exams,” E grunts.
It’s time for C to intervene. “And that’s where the future lies. Time constrained question and answer exams are retrograde. We can experiment with take home tests, increase the coursework element and rely more on formative assessment. Ultimately, we will dispense with assessment per se. It’s time to jettison outdated thinking.”

“I suppose no thinking is better than outdated thinking and a satisfaction questionnaire beats an exam any day.” G is ignored. He can mock and complain as much as he likes, no one is interested. He can whistle or yodel or spew his guts, it won’t make any difference.
“All future applications for promotion must include evidence of novel methods in knowledge exchange and alternatives to assessment.” C stops to correct himself. “Of course, lesser examples of innovation can be compensated by significant research income.”
The raison d’être, the bottom line, funds and income trump everything else, however innovative. G remembers a past meeting when A turned to him as they were leaving and muttered, “Your opinion only counts if you bring a million to the table.”

“The message you are to take back to your colleagues is simple. Class averages reflect quality of teaching. Anything less than first class honours indicates sub-standard teaching methods.”
A hangs his head and sighs. E is hawking noisily, bringing up more phlegm. It is time for C’s summing up.
“A good strategy is only good if executed effectively. I will arrange a follow up session when you’ve had time to digest what we discussed today. We live in interesting times, on the cusp of far ranging changes. At the next meeting, I will have something to say about research income. Grant winnings are down, some of you need to up your game. The red traffic light is flashing.”

D is fingering his sandwich. F looks anxious, fretting over the implication of what C has said, all hands to the pump. B bobs up and down on her plump buttocks, trying to attract C’s attention. G feels hollow and worthless. So much for taking a stand. He is complicit, inextricably part of the problem. Is this the best they can offer? The world is different and they must do things differently. The core values, intellectual integrity, delivering on impact, knowledge exchange, student satisfaction, freedom of expression, questionnaires and red traffic lights. It’s too late, what has been set in motion is irreversible in an unremitting march to the bottom. Before long, the hungry ones will take over. They will replace A, D, E, F and G, C too and B as well for the hungry ones will have no regard for her status. And those hungry ones will be supplanted by others even hungrier.

“Of course, of course I will support your nomination for that prize.” C nods his head emphatically as he holds the door open for B.
G waits for them to go before he leaves.

He thinks of Wordtris. Maybe, he could devise a numerical variant, after all he is a mathematician. There must be commercial possibilities and it could be his exit route. But he doesn’t have the energy or willingness. He will go back to his office and see if he can beat his high score, 110 for “wretched”. It’s his only motivation.

The meeting of the Ivory Tower has come to an end.

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