It's been a busy few weeks in the run-up to the new university year. First, let's drop in again on Dr Dai Llemmer's v-c helpline to test the pulse of the nation's academic leaders, before turning to a letter from a distressed young reader ...
"Hello, Dai Llemmer."
"Yes indeed, go ahead, caller."
"Good. Now, listen carefully, will you? I was browsing through The Times Higher this morning and saw that message from the v-c who was re-branding his university. It fairly stopped me in my tracks. I thought, that's old 'Knobber' Nobbs at UWH, I'd know him anywhere. 'The University in the heart of Dickens country,' my arse! Trollope country, more like, which would be appropriate for him, eh?"
"Do you have a query, caller?"
"Of course I've got a query, you oaf, why else would I be calling you? It's about rebranding. You'll have heard the latest from Universities UK on the issue, of course. Crests are out, obviously; logos are, like, so last century, even italics are passe (just when I've had Estates working 24/7 italicising all the definite articles on the signage too, but no matter). What the 21st-century university is all about is mascot animals, and I want one!"
"Yes, do keep up. They're cheap to run, satisfyingly client-facing, and give everyone something to look at during graduation while the honorary graduands drone on about the honour we've done them in slipping them an MA in the hope they'll leave us something in their wills.
"But it's important to get the right animal, of course. I wanted a lion, but the new fellow at Nottingham has bulk-ordered a whole pride from Whipsnade already, so that's a non-starter."
"They've got a warthog at Brighton, a giant panda at Keele and a flock of flamingos at UCL (all very good for the kids, but hell for the cleaners I'd have thought). So I've got to go one better."
"Are you sure someone isn't having you on?"
"Of course not. The word is that Tippet at Chiswick has gone and got himself a griffin."
"Are you hard of hearing, man? A GRIFFIN!"
"You do realise they are mythical, don't you?"
"Abso-bloody-lutely. How do you think he's done it?"
"Perhaps he's stuck some wings and a beak on a greyhound?"
"You think? The cunning swine."
"Either that or he's abolished the rules of genetics."
"Oh, now that's not so hard. I did that in '97."
"I think that was the department of genetics, wasn't it?"
"Whatever. Look, what I need is something even more mythical to trump a griffin."
"Have you thought about a bonnacon? Great, slow-moving oxen that leave a trail of toxic dung to deter predators ... worshipped by the Assyrians?"
"Sounds like my registrar, although I'm not sure about the Assyrians. Got anything sexier?"
"The thing they take the female students home in after dark?"
"That's a minibus. A succubus is a nubile spirit that lives in deserted places and sucks the life-spirit out of men at night, leaving them mere husks of their former selves."
"I'm still getting visions of the registrar, I'm afraid. I want something noble that bespeaks the university's mission to educate and serve the community, while recouping overheads at 145 per cent."
"OK, what about a chimera? It's admirably interdisciplinary, being part lion, part goat and part serpent, breathes fire and has classical origins, so will impress the parents."
"Sounds just the ticket - who'd know where I could find one?"
"Pliny the Elder?"
"I'll get my secretary on to him first thing in the morning. Thanks for that, lad, the cheque's in the post."
Someone describing herself as "a gifted non-organic chemist in a client- facing Soixante-Neuf Group university" writes: "Dear Dai, you have to help me. I feel as if the academic world has left me on the shelf. I am nearly 28 and still don't have a research chair. At 15, I set myself the target of a six-figure salary and a named chair with no teaching duties by my mid-twenties, and I have rigorously pursued those goals ever since - but somehow it just hasn't happened. My friends, none of them as gifted or dynamic as me, are promoted to chairs all the time but I remain stuck as a reader. I look at my professorial colleagues with their sense of semi- detachment from the department, their inability to identify a single undergraduate by name, and the jealousy and resentment that older colleagues feel towards them, and I want those perks, too! What can I do to speed things up?"
Dr Dai writes:
"It is good to have a goal and to aim consistently for it. But I should warn you that even a chair is not the benchmark of achievement it once was. There are chairs and chairs these days, and you need to be clear about the type you want.
"First there are the titles. There are full professors, nearly-full professors (those waiting for pudding), 'named chair' professors (the ones who bag a place at lunch with a beach towel first thing in the morning) and virtual professors (on a professorial salary, but you never see them).
"Then there are the chairs themselves. Given the trend towards 'title creep', there is a need to discriminate here, too. My own institution recently hired a consultancy firm (called 'DFS', I think) to suggest a new nomenclature for chair awards, and they came up with the following new grades:
"Grade 1. Chairs to which colleagues are promoted on retirement so they can use the title 'emeritus' while tending their gardens. These are described as 'cheap, temporary and highly portable chairs with very few serious implications for the university'. The suggested nomenclature is 'shooting-stick professors'.
"Grade 2. Personal chairs awarded to industrious colleagues after long service, described as 'functional, a natural consequence of university life and constitutionally necessary'. The suggestion here is 'stool professors'.
"Grade 3. Established chairs that come with headship of a department. Defined in the brochure as 'solidly based, grounded in tradition and held through the generations by powerful men (sic)'. The suggestion 'throne professors' speaks for itself, I think.
"Grade 4. Last are the lavishly endowed posts you have in mind. The description here is 'pleasant for the incumbent and a conversation piece at parties, but rather awkward to circumnavigate in a small room and difficult to justify in terms of function'. The suggested title is 'chaise longue professor', which comes with the warning: 'There can only be so many of these in one place before people start thinking it's a brothel.'
"Under the circumstances, I suggest that you set yourself a target more appropriate to your gifts; perhaps a vice-chancellorship or a place on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!
Dai Llemmer is part-time head of crisis management at a research-indifferent university in the South Yorkshire commute-to-work zone.