Diving into murky waters

As deputy head of department, Gloria Monday finds herself in the unenviable position of looking for ways to cut costs

November 27, 2008

I woke up at 3am with palpitations the other night, hardly surprising since I’ve been smoking more than 20 a day this semester, and topping up my tea from the whisky bottle more often than I care to remember. It’s all on account of having agreed to become deputy head of department, something I thought would have given me a bit of kudos and assured me a decent sabbatical without too much effort. What I hadn’t reckoned on was the lethal combination of bone idle colleagues who bitch all the time about being overmanaged and having too much admin foisted on them, plus the brutal reality of just how much admin they aren’t doing, because it’s all coming my way. I can see now why Brian the Eternally Anxious looks like a cornered rat whenever you come across him, although he isn’t half trying to ingratiate himself with me as he hands over yet more work that he claims is best dealt with by his deputy.

He gave me the job of attending an emergency meeting for departmental heads, henceforth known acronymically as Hods, called by the vice-chancellor. I knew it was serious because we were given biscuits with our stewed tea, and I’ve never seen that before in this benighted institution. We certainly won’t be getting biscuits again, though, to judge by the v-c’s account of our finances. Apparently we have been dabbling in Icelandic banks while the cost of the new business school has soared above all sane expectations, because none of the accountants trained in it was capable of doing the sums in the first place. The v-c also confirmed the rumour that our much-vaunted Olympic swimming pool is three metres short of international standards, but we were all told to play this down and stress instead the benefit the new pool will be to local schools, hence improving our community relations. When I pointed out that the new pool has been headlined in the local press as a key element of the town’s 2012 strategy, the v-c coughed and said yes, well, the press officer was working on damage limitation. My mate from film studies asked who exactly was responsible for such an elementary and idiotic mistake, and after another coughing fit the V-C said investigations were under way, but that since the contractor had gone bust it was unlikely that we would ever get to the bottom of it all, so we should try to think positively and move on.

What this shows, I said, is that some people who are paid to demonstrate financial acumen and measuring skills apparently need to take off their shoes and socks and count their toes to make sure they know what ten means. This raised a laugh and a “now, now, Gloria” from the v-c through a rictus grin. Wee Tommie, our manic Scottish registrar, was puce-coloured throughout the meeting and I swear I could hear his teeth grinding from the other side of the room. I know where I would start any investigation of general financial incompetence, and it wouldn’t be in the history department!

Then we moved on to the real core of the meeting: we are broke, basically – we have run out of cash and we can’t pay for the buildings we’ve put up, nor can we afford the salaries of all the odds and sods posing as academic superstars that we bought in a last-ditch effort to boost our standing in the research assessment exercise. The v-c’s lavish salary increase that we first read about in Times Higher Education wasn’t mentioned; what we got instead was talk of redundancies, laying off more cleaners, freezing posts, cutting back on sabbatical leave, cutting energy costs, turning off lights and computers, and making small but essential savings such as serving tap water in meetings instead of the brown liquids that pass for tea and coffee. Wee Tommie asked us to talk to our colleagues and “test the waters” to see whether the university community might collectively want to help the institution through this difficult patch by taking a voluntary salary cut. This, he declared, would be a demonstration of loyalty to our peers and would send a signal to all those generous alumni who are contributing to our fundraising campaign.

I said I didn’t think for one second that anyone would go down the voluntary salary cut path, so I didn’t need to test any waters at all in my neck of the woods. I also said I thought that he was using an unfortunate turn of phrase, since the alumni association had spent several years raising money for the truncated swimming pool and were hardly going to throw yet more cash at us once they found out that our particular waters were not fit for purpose. I am told on good authority that after the meeting Wee Tommie was overheard commenting that drowning was too good an end for some women, and I think I know whom he had in mind.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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