Inspired by NYU, but ex-leader’s novel ‘strictly fictional’

Four decades as professor and campus vice-president, with a stint in Italy, has Robert Berne seeing parallels to global intrigue and prison life

August 4, 2022
Retired NYU VP pens novel take on his time in academia
Source: Alamy

After decades of enduring capricious donors and headstrong administrators, longtime New York University vice-president Robert Berne has come up with a 276-page payback – but it is all strictly fictional.

Tuscan Son, his new novel, tells the story of an administrator who spends more than two months in a Panamanian jail during a battle to secure a half-billion dollar (£400 million) Italian estate for his university.

The tale plays out as diary entries during the imprisonment, written by the protagonist, Bill, who survives the 70-day ordeal by navigating gang alliances, inmate fights and corrupt guards, thanks in no small part to his training in the equally provincial, if usually less deadly, world of campus administration politics.

“Some people in my position would have written a book, ‘The seven things I learned as an administrator’, and some people would have written a memoir,” Dr Berne, NYU’s former senior vice-president for health, told Times Higher Education. “For whatever reason, I felt more attracted to writing a novel.”

Part of the lure may likely have been securing a get-out clause for anyone tempted to draw parallels with true events. During Dr Berne’s four-plus decades at NYU, he was part of the team that transformed Villa La Pietra – the home of the Italian-born British writer Harold Acton – into NYU Florence after it was bequeathed to the institution in 1994.

In Dr Berne’s fictional rendition, Bill works for “Olmsted University” and the wealthy donor is a just-deceased graduate named Roberto Follamento. His son, Angelo, fights Olmsted for the rights to the family’s eponymous village and Bill’s imprisonment is part of a ruse concocted by Angelo’s allies to lure him to Panama.

For his own reasons, legal or otherwise, Dr Berne stresses that Olmsted is not his old institution, despite him describing the fictional setting in terms remarkably similar to those of his high-priced former employer. “It was inspired by my work at NYU, but it’s definitely not NYU,” he told Times Higher Education. “There’s no one from NYU in the book.”

That said, Dr Berne is more than content to let Bill’s fabricated travails speak for the realities of academia more broadly.

“In higher ed,” he said, “I’d say that there’s a lot more to decision-making and management than often meets the eye – there are a lot of cross-currents, there are a lot of constituencies, there’s ambiguity.”

That’s especially true with philanthropists. The book includes administrators complaining about donors who have their own ideas about what their money should be used to accomplish, at the same time they want that right for themselves. “Why don’t donors give their money for what we want to do?” Olmsted’s president complains softly at one point in the book.

Bill also has his own fallibility pointed out. “The protagonist thinks he knows more than he knows,” Dr Berne said. The book, he added, describes “an administrator who – I won’t say he was full of himself, but he certainly thought he knew things that either he was wrong about or didn't know”.

And the real “Bill” isn’t necessarily claiming superior wisdom for himself now. Asked what the book was telling higher education to do differently, Dr Berne answered: “It’s a good question; I didn’t write it in that way.”


Print headline: A novel take on academic life

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