At 9 o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the electronically flatulent pinging of computer updates neither requested nor needed. Ivor scanned the inbox and spent 30 minutes deleting all those emails with “impact”, “quality”, or “satisfaction” in the title. He then drank a coffee whilst reading a newspaper article about Hispanic Americans enthusiastically voting for a cat-hat-combover presidential candidate who had called the majority of them “murderers and rapists”. Ivor now felt mentally acclimatised for a day spent with academics.
The bright sun made the advertising spiel on the building work canvas covers refulgent in its corporate optimism as Ivor entered the campus. “Moving forward”, he read the Darwinian league table placings of various departments and how the university was investing £520 million in capital projects. “That’s good, at least I now know why I haven’t had a real-terms pay rise in more than 15 years,” he mused. Ivor thought back fondly to the last graduation ceremony he attended when the pro vice-chancellor invited parents and freshly processed graduates to stand and applaud all the staff on stage “without whom none of this would have been possible” and wondered whether, once completed, the buildings would also appropriate that seemingly heart-felt applause.
Ivor spent the rest of his morning answering a series of emails from various university agencies. The one quality they all held in common was an over-compensatory, slightly demented, mode of expression: relentless purposiveness without rational purpose. Somewhat confusingly, Ivor found himself to be a customer-facing employee continuously accounting for his actions to a legion of overseers whose own direct contribution to the bottom line business of the university was distinctly less clear. He tried to recall the last email that had announced an increase in his professional autonomy or a meeting in which the latest bureaucratic diktat had been rejected because it demonstrated an institutionally neurotic obsession with standardisation for its own sake. Ivor consoled himself with the fact that at least the never-ending stream of cookie-cutter initiatives didn’t come from fellow academics. Luckily, that Kafkaesque scenario was still a distant possibility; it would be a dark day indeed when scholars advanced their careers through the self-interpellation of administrative asininity.
At lunchtime, Ivor passed the super-modern, latest addition to the campus, a library clad in hugely expensive, specially quarried, stone. Bringing to mind the poem Ozymandias, he despaired as he gazed upon the library’s emblazoned name: an eponymous dedication to the tax-dodging sex addict who had footed the bill. Ivor recalled the statement of a university spokesman who had defended its appropriateness: “The university has a gift acceptance committee, a subcommittee of the governing body (the university council), which examines the source of donations and potential donations according to a set of criteria agreed by the council and published on the university website.” On reflection, Ivor was reassured by this. It would be churlish to argue with such an unapologetically process-fixated answer to a question about fundamental ethical standards. It wasn’t, after all, as if the university had reduced itself to the grasping behaviour of the erstwhile Libyan School of Economics. Moreover, the ultimate outcome was positive: anachronistic books-on-shelves had been largely replaced with osmotically interactive multimedia pods and a coffee chain store on the ground floor. Familiar with the university’s cult of bureaucracy, Ivor looked forward to its inevitable relaunch as the “Jim Jones café” with a daily special on Kool-Aid.
Early afternoon was passed diligently reading the universities-wide policy on open access publishing. Given the strenuous efforts to ensure that publishers still make money irrespective of new technological developments, Ivor considered it a shame that universities themselves didn’t have their own pool of internationally recognised authors, unpaid proofreaders, and sophisticated computer infrastructures with which to disseminate their work freely. It seemed to him that the millions of pounds spent by libraries on expensive journal packages of which academics were the exclusive content producers was money well spent.
The day drew to a close in a student education facilitation hub for blended learning outcomes. Ivor introduced his “partners in pedagogy” to a Jewish intellectual called Theodor Adorno who, having fled the Nazi regime, dedicated the rest of his life in America to lambasting the smugly bovine conformism of those who connive at their own oppression in the self-proclaimed “land of the free”. Ivor finished the collaborative learning experience by quoting Adorno’s assertion of unfashionably non-utilitarian values: “When the doors are barricaded, it is doubly important that thought not be interrupted.” The customers seemed happy with the service provided, but when Ivor got back to his office the final email of the day was from a client who had missed the session because of more pressing social commitments and who was requesting a detailed recap.
Ivor left the campus as the springtime sun began to sink behind the unreflective glass-encased administration block. At least “he’d got over it. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.”
Paul Taylor is associate professor in cultural and communications theory at the University of Leeds.