The wise men's gift

December 21, 2007

In an increasingly competitive research market, smaller universities need to find a unique selling point. John Gilbey recounts the tale of one vice-chancellor and his miraculous present.

The vice-chancellor glared sullenly from his office window across the frosted expanse of the visitors' car park. In his thick, short neck, a vein pulsed darkly with suppressed anger. "There appears to be an outbreak of handshaking in the car park. Do you think that will be our visitors?"

The registrar oozed up beside him and followed his gaze. A group of predatory-looking executive cars was parked below them, and three business-suited men were greeting each other and using their mobile phones simultaneously.

"Almost certainly, Peter. Do you want me to go down and welcome them?"

The vice-chancellor gave a negative, dismissive snort. "No. They can go to reception like everyone else. Let them sit around and stew for ten minutes - then you can go and get them." His face set in the stony grimace that served him for a smile.

The vice-chancellor used the time well: sipping scalding hot, bitter coffee while gazing at the screen of his PC. The names in the e-mail were vaguely familiar and he could put a face to at least one of them. He wondered how much they knew and how much they were guessing. Or perhaps this was just a fishing trip to see whether he would blink? The vice- chancellor wasn't a blinker. When asked about his management style, his PA had memorably responded: "Let me put it this way: if he says he is 'going out clubbing', he isn't going to a disco."

The trio that swept - in attack formation - into his office behind the registrar didn't look like blinkers either. The leading suit reached out his right hand in aggressive greeting and tried for a boilermaker's grip on the vice-chancellor. The vice-chancellor gripped back, and there was a strained pause before they accepted a draw.

"Nice to see you again, Peter," said the suit. "It must be a few years since we last met? Let's see - that seminar in Bloomsbury, wasn't it?" A tactical opening, decided the vice-chancellor. They both knew that he had nearly been thrown out of the session for arguing the toss with the god- like guest speaker. "I don't know if you have come across David and Tom before?"

"Yes, I think I saw you both at that Small Colleges meeting last spring. I was there representing the established sector - of course."

His barb caused a twitch of emotion from the pair and he smiled inwardly. "Well, Steve, what can we do for you?"

Stephen, as he preferred to be called, composed himself with a deep breath. "Well, Peter, it should come as no surprise to you that we are here to discuss your RAE submission."

The vice-chancellor failed to change expression. "I see. And how are things down at Research Assessment Exercise HQ? All pigs fed and ready to fly, are they?"

The senior suit frowned. "I think you may have misinterpreted our commission, Peter. We are not here on behalf of the RAE, or Hefce for that matter. We represent a consortium of universities that have - I have to say - grave concerns regarding your submission. We are here to get your position on this before we consider taking the matter further. And by that I mean lobbying the Minister in the first instance."

"Grave concerns, eh?" mused the vice-chancellor. He turned to the registrar. "What do you think, Trevor, time to get the lawyers in?"

The already pale registrar, whose budget that would come out of, paled further. "I think that would be premature, vice-chancellor. Although I would point out to our guests that the University of Rural England is an institution with an excellent reputation, which it is prepared to defend most strongly against any allegations of wrong-doing. The fact that we have published our submission on our corporate website surely indicates the degree of openness we support."

The vice-chancellor, amused by the strength of the defence, held up a calming hand. "I think it may be time for a free and frank exchange of views, gentlemen. Who wants first punch?"

"I am sure," Stephen began, "that we are not seeking to impugn the good name of the university" - "Not in public, anyway," thought the vice- chancellor - "but the publications list you have submitted appears to contain a surprising number of serious ... discontinuities. And I am sure you will agree that the overall research performance is startlingly better than could have been predicted from your 2001 return.

"The members of the consortium - who potentially stand to suffer significant financial loss if this situation continues unchallenged - have analysed the papers and their authorship in some detail. There are nearly 100 journal papers here that give us cause for concern."

Stephen slid a thin folder across the table to the vice-chancellor, who ignored it.

"We are justly proud of our improved research performance in recent years," countered the vice-chancellor, with firm eye contact. "And I like to think that I have made some small contribution to it. Are you suggesting that we have systematically abused the RAE system? That would appear to be your point here."

David and Tom exchanged glances, then Tom spoke for the first time. "We have reason to believe, vice-chancellor, that you have used external staff to contribute to these publications - yet their authorial contribution has been concealed, presumably so as not to impact on their own institutions. If you would care to look at the list, you will find that the second author of each paper has what I can only describe as an assumed name, scavenged from famous figures in each field of research."

The vice-chancellor casually flipped through the folder. "These are very serious accusations," he commented with dangerous calm. "I assume my word as a gentleman that they are unfounded would not be sufficient?"

"That, at least, is something we agree on," confirmed the senior suit.

"Very well," accepted the vice-chancellor with a grudging, grave tone. "I suggest that we have coffee while we get a few people together who can discuss this more fully. If you could make the necessary arrangements, Trevor?" The registrar nodded briefly, then fled.

The small seminar room had seen better days. Chipped laminate was peeling from the edges of the oddly unmatched tables, and the blinds hung at an eccentric angle. As the group filed in, the registrar was apologising profusely. At the table in front of the screen, a scruffy bearded man and a well-dressed woman in glasses were hurriedly editing a presentation on a laptop.

The vice-chancellor stepped forward and introduced them. "This is Eric from Information Services and Fiona is our head of HR - they have both been deeply involved in the RAE process." He didn't bother introducing the visitors.

After the usual struggle, the LCD projector wheezed into life and the university crest lurched onto the screen.

The vice-chancellor nodded curtly to the registrar, who trotted to the laptop and began to speak to the group. "The University of Rural England can trace its roots as a higher education provider back to the early 19th century, and we are justly proud of both our teaching and, more latterly, our research. We had anticipated that our recent success in this field might meet with some interest, so we have prepared this presentation. Please feel free to ask questions as we go along."

"Firstly, I would like to confirm that all the authors represented in our RAE submission are either employees or formally retained research associates of the university." He nodded to the head of HR. "Fiona here will furnish you with all the contractual information, should you require it, but I assure you that it is all in order. Furthermore, all staff are represented under their own given names - no one has assumed a nom de plume or similar subterfuge. The RAE submission covers only our own people and their own work, although I accept that some of our processes may need a little explanation ... ".

An antique engraving of the old college building appeared on the screen beside him. "The building you are currently in is largely 16th century but is built on the site of an abbey that itself contributed to scholarly life for many centuries. Learning has been a strong theme here for at least a thousand years, and this is more than just a convenient marketing tool. Perhaps Eric could take the next section?"

The IT person brushed the crumbs of a cheese roll from his chest and stood up.

"For many years, we have known that this building suffers from electrical problems: lights burning out, office equipment failing, that sort of thing. Then, about 20 years ago, we first ran our computer networks into it and got really amazing trouble with data integrity. My boss Spike and I spent bloody weeks running round with a network analyser trying to sort it out. Then, suddenly, the noise just stopped. Nothing at all - except that the traffic levels were always about 50 per cent higher than we could account for. It took a while to work that one out, but eventually we found that data packets were just appearing in network segments with nothing attached to them - no PC, just thin air. It was like something had been learning how to plug into our network. That gave us a turn, I can tell you. So we blocked the traffic at the router and then suddenly all hell broke loose ... ".

Stephen - who had until then been sitting in stunned silence - broke in. "What do you mean by that? What happened?"

Eric stopped talking, swallowed hard and gazed woodenly into the middle distance. Small beads of sweat appeared on his brow. "It really was very, very ... nasty. But we stood our ground. The vice-chancellor insisted on it.

"Eventually it went quiet, and we opened just one set of ports - carefully firewalled - and then the vice-chancellor started getting the e-mails ...".

The vice-chancellor took up the story, but stayed in his chair. "They were interesting, I have to say. They purported to be from old Jim, my predecessor here, and after a while I was convinced. You see, the e-mails contained details that only he and I could possibly know - and he had an impressive business proposition for me. Only problem was that Jim had already been dead for ten years at that point, but my legal people assured me that the contract we wrote was binding all the same."

"Contract?" David blurted. "Are you suggesting that you have a made a contract with a dead vice-chancellor? Why on earth would you want a contract ... even if one could be enforced?"

The vice-chancellor looked at him with pitying surprise. "I would have thought that was obvious, given your presence here. The contract is for the provision of research expertise in exchange for access to the web and the usual academic services: databases, electronic journals and so on.

"Jim is well connected over there, and pretty much anyone we need to contribute to a project he can get for us. You have seen a list of our research associates" - he nodded to the folder - "A hundred of the finest thinkers from the whole of history: people like Newton, Boyle, Lovelace. I think you all ought to be pretty damn impressed, to be honest. And you don't just have e-mail access to them: for an extra fee, you can have their full corporeal presence, or 'ghosts', as some people call them."

"And you expect me to believe all this?" Stephen demanded, recovering his composure slightly.

"You can think what you like," rejoined the vice-chancellor, "but I'll tell you this. This is a whole new business model for academic research, and we own it. As far as we can tell, this portal is unique - something to do with leylines apparently - and I suspect the monks knew all about it. If you lot have got any sense, you will go back and get your people to join us on a franchise basis before we go global and the price goes up. You will find it useful in all sorts of ways, not least in demonstrating your commitment to diversity and equal opportunities."

His face twisted in a way that suggested triumph and satisfaction. "Still want to lobby the Minister, do you?"

When the visitors had stumbled, shocked and disquieted, from the building, the vice-chancellor and his team met to review the battle plan.

The registrar looked even more solemn than usual. "I hope my introduction was satisfactory, vice-chancellor? It was difficult to know how to pitch it."

The vice-chancellor reassured him with a heavy gesture, as he poured whisky into his own coffee cup.

"Don't you think we ought to have mentioned some of the downsides, though?" queried Fiona. "I mean, some of the tricky disciplinary issues we have had with the more recalcitrant individuals? That unfortunate business with the ladies' hockey team, for example - those messy manifestations in the shower room?"

"Not to mention the chaplain having to do an exorcism on the network routers every Tuesday morning," put in Eric. "It really clocks up the downtime, you know."

The vice-chancellor shook his head. "Not a chance. That was the sales pitch, and we needed to sell it on our own terms. The other buggers can take their chances just like we had to."

The registrar nodded slowly and looked round at his colleagues. "I wonder if I could take this opportunity to thank you all for the support and friendship you have given me over the past year. As you know, it has been a difficult time for me - personally."

Uncharacteristically, the vice-chancellor looked almost embarrassed and fumbled awkwardly with his cup and saucer. "That's really no problem at all, Trevor. We couldn't have achieved what we have done without you."

Then he brightened and looked up at the registrar. "After all, it really just proves what I have always said: the best administrator is a dead administrator!"

John Gilbey lectures in computer science. He is keen to point out that this is a work of fiction and that he writes in a private capacity.

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