A character in one of Shakespeare’s plays has a spell put on him that transforms him into an ass. This is because the fairy king wants revenge on the fairy queen, so he puts a spell on her too, which makes her fall passionately in love with the donkey-man.
When this is staged, an actor runs around wearing a donkey’s head and it is all very funny, apparently. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never seen it, but I do know how the donkey-man must have felt, because the other day I, too, was transformed into an ass.
It all started with a letter marked “private and confidential”. It was from Big D, our vice-chancellor, and it informed me in rather grandiose language that he was writing to congratulate me on the decision of some committee or other to award me the title of professor. This was on account of my hard work and commitment to the university following the departure of Brian the Anxious, my former boss, who had taken a lucrative early retirement package after months of sick leave, during which time he had left me, his deputy, to do all the donkey work.
For a split second I was thrilled. Good Lord, me a professor! Visions of how cheesed off a lot of people would be when they heard about it rushed through my mind, giving me a momentary warm glow. There is nothing more enjoyable than watching the envious gnash their teeth powerlessly.
But then I twigged that something wasn’t quite right. There appeared to be no mention of the salary that the newly promoted Professor Monday would be getting. Well, I reasoned, perhaps there’s a finance sub-group that has to meet to sort out salaries and there will be a follow-up in the next post, or an email giving me details.
But there wasn’t. Two days went by and the silence was deafening. I rang Big D’s office, and as ever was held at arm’s length by the redoubtable Edith.
“Can I be of assistance?” she asked. They all talk like that these days, obviously there’s a basic training package that teaches people to parrot the same silly phrases. “Can I be of any assistance?” is one, along with “Bear with me a moment while I put you on hold”, and “Have a nice day” – all used when they are about to hang up on you without having been of any assistance at all.
Edith told me that Big D was “abroad on important business” – which, translated into plain English, means he’s off on a jolly somewhere at the taxpayer’s expense – but that she might be able to help.
So I asked her why I still had not had any details of my new professorial salary. In a tone reserved for small children or the mentally impaired, Edith explained that I had not been “put forward through the usual promotions procedures”, which would have involved external referees and “an in-depth consideration of claims to academic excellence befitting a promotion to professorial rank”.
I had merely been given a professorial title, which would enhance my status since I was now heading up the unit that Brian had abandoned. I would have to report up to the head of school in the usual way, only now I should ensure that I was addressed at all times as “Professor”.
Despite my remonstrations, which I fear contained the odd expletive, Edith clearly felt that I should regard this bestowing of the title as a Great Leap Forward and a Great Honour. You could tell she would have cut throats herself to be addressed as Professor Littlebottom. Our somewhat acrimonious exchange was cut short by her inviting me to “have a good day” in such a way that I knew she was willing me to step off the pavement under a bus on my way home.
I rang one of my mates in the union to check the legality of giving someone a title without any of the perks that go with it. He said he’d heard rumours about this happening in universities all over the place. Apparently institutions use it as a way of saving money while claiming to be centres of excellence, as demonstrated by long lists of professors on the staff.
His advice was to go with the title and start agitating about pay further down the road. He also offered a crumb of comfort by saying that probably not that many people would realise I was a title-only professor.
So here I am, with a sign saying Professor Monday on my door and the feeling that this professorship makes a right ass of me. I suppose I should console myself with the fact that at least it was given to me without a bill attached. You can’t tell what they will be charging you for next in higher education these days.