I ought to have guessed that when I agreed to be deputy head of department, there was a catch. At the time, I thought it may help me get a step up the sabbatical-leave ladder, but I can see now that I was utterly naive. All it’s brought me is trouble: a lot more work; Brian the Anxious off-loading attendance at this and that committee; a certain amount of aggro from the paranoid few who think that I have stepped into the arena of power where all decisions are taken; and yet more harassment about my not-so-secret nicotine habit from the Green lobby.
Administration in universities is a thankless job: if you opt out completely, you never have a clue about what’s going on, particularly if, like some people, you turn up only two days a week and only in term-time. But if you get involved in any admin, you find your time being eroded and your workload mounting, because there’s always a working group or drafting group or a take-this-away-and-try-to-pull-it-together-and-bring-it-back-next-time group. What’s more, the bunch who show up only occasionally are usually the most vociferous complainers, and since they don’t have even the most basic grasp of how the whole enterprise works, conspiracy theories run riot. I have begun to see why Brian wrings his hands all the time and has a pronounced facial tic. There he is battling against Wee Tommie, the registrar who thinks only science and engineering should be taught in universities, then he’s being savaged by his own troops back here in History because they think he’s a collaborator since our budget was cut even further.
Just as I was starting to think a little more fondly of Brian, the bastard pulled a Machiavellian stunt on the morning of the staff meeting when he rang in to say he was ill. That left me to break the bad news about the university’s dire financial situation, the worse news about our failure to win any research funding in any of the recent rounds and the even worse news that because three of our colleagues were in Mexico over Easter and are now quarantined for fear of swine flu, the essay marking has had to be redistributed and everybody’s workload has just shot up a notch.
Nobody gave a toss about the dire finances – hardly surprising since they all blame Wee Tommie and the vice-chancellor for mismanaging us. There was the odd “Oh dear”, “Shame about that” and “Did anybody put in any bids?” when I broke the research funding news, but the additional essay marking threw them into mass turmoil. For a moment, I feared a 21st-century repeat of the Prague defenestration of 1618, when a furious mob of Protestant nobles tossed two imperial counsellors out of the castle windows, flinging them 80 feet into a mound of excrement. Of course, the two-day-a-weekers were the most agitated, claiming that the marking of an extra essay or two would cause irreparable damage to their research time.
My low spirits were not improved by what I heard from our secretary after the meeting, from which I feel I was lucky to emerge alive. Apparently Brian is claiming that the head cold that prevented him from coming in and facing us all is symptomatic of a more serious condition of long-term stress. His doctor has given him a month off, which means that while he sits in a deckchair doing The Guardian crossword, I am stuck running this circus.
In Brian’s absence, I am now becoming everyone’s scapegoat. The number of aggressive emails is rising daily – from students complaining about their teachers, from administrators complaining about academics, and from academics complaining about everyone, especially yours truly. I had no idea there could be so many pointless forms to fill in, so many deadlines that administrators keep manufacturing, so many meetings to go to where the same people say the same thing and try to make it sound important. Everybody is complaining all the time about being overworked, but the overload is created by the sheer inefficiency of everything and everybody.
Does anyone outside a university have the faintest idea how chaotic these places are for those of us working in them? But would any of us survive for more than a week in the world outside these (ersatz, I’m afraid) ivory towers? Perhaps I should write to Alan Sugar and see if he would run a show strictly for academics. Get That Don! is my fantasy title.