Chapter 1: Reassurance

The guy in the expensive suit and silk tie had been addressing them for 45 minutes now and Jenny had barely understood a word.  Partly, she was prepared to admit, this was perhaps her tiredness or struggling with concentration at the end of another long day.  Or maybe it was a lack of familiarity with university processes, committee names, abbreviations and suchlike.  At the same time though she was finding it harder to shut out a growing suspicion that he was just talking bollocks.

This was Jenny’s first face-to-face experience of Alan Sheldon-Keynes, Nathaniel Shackleton University’s ‘Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise’, although she’d been well briefed on him by Pat and Fatima – her informal mentors through her first fortnight at ‘The Shack’ – as she had on several other NSU ‘notables’.  This one, Professor Sheldon-Keynes, was often referred to, particularly behind his back, as ‘difficult’, which, it turned out, was rather at the politer end of the descriptive spectrum.  Less-flattering terms were more common.  Pat and Fatima’s best assessment (they were both relatively new too) was that you were dealing with a complex, often conflicting, combination of character faults, possibly even undiagnosed behavioural problems.  Academically, his background was in fine art, and he could certainly be suitably nebulous when pressed for intelligent decisions.  However, in matters relating to his own interests, he presented to the world the tunnel-visioned, intransigent attention to detail of a quantum physicist.  A more common, unifying opinion was that he was a ‘fucking nightmare’ to work with and ‘so far up his own arse he could watch his breakfast all the way down’.  He was ideally suited to his current ‘enterprise-generation’ role of drilling a large team of wide-eyed business graduates in the university’s pursuit of ‘new markets’, unhindered by any dissenting voices to challenge him in theory, or meaningful performance metrics to undermine him in practice.  His customary approach to any conversations with underlings that were not going his way was simply to snap, ‘No!’ then repeat this and nothing else until his adversary either gave way or changed to a more agreeable subject.

Alan S-K had been made a professor two years previously on the now unspoken dual criteria of having exceeded a certain salary point whilst not yet embroiling the university in financial or sexual controversy.  The latter was a scarce commodity in recent times – rewarded generously where it applied.  He nurtured a perpetually unfulfilled ambition wherever he went that staff would refer to him casually, on account of his initials, as ‘Ask’ (and issued light-hearted directives accordingly) but this had never happened anywhere he had previously worked – and never would.  Instead, here at NSU, to his face, no-one could bring themselves to call him anything other than ‘Alan’ (if they felt they knew him well enough) or ‘Professor Sheldon-Keynes’ (if they didn’t) whereas, out of earshot, he commonly went by two university nicknames: ‘Shiny Boy’, a reflection of his expensively coiffured and conditioned hair, choice of ties and business suit material; and ‘Triple-A’, an abbreviation for ‘Alan the Arsehole Artist’.

‘Anyway!’ he announced abruptly, the semi-metallic sheen of his blue suit seeming to leap with a faintly more energetic reflection in the afternoon sun flooding through the window.  Jenny flinched from the doze she hadn’t realised she was slipping into.  This might actually be about to finish.  She glanced around the room.  Bill Wiggins, the head of department, sat bolt upright, trying to look absorbed in the front row.  In contrast, at the back, Vince Plumb looked like he’d been asleep for some time, his relaxed breaths perilously close to quiet snoring.  The rest of the engineering department, another dozen or so of them, were in various stages of inattentiveness in between.  Jenny, Pat and Fatima exchanged hopeful looks.

‘So,’ Professor Sheldon-Keynes continued, ‘to summarise then.’  He was finishing!  ‘Why are we rolling out this international programme at such short notice? Operational reasons. Can I say what those are? No: that’s confidential. Why have we chosen this particular private company to help us host the online material? No particular reason. Why do we have to use their e-learning system, not our own? Well, we have to use something, don’t we?  How come I’m co-director of other companies with the directors of this company? Pure coincidence. Can academic staff see the tendering process? No: that’s confidential. What’s the business plan? Again, confidential. How much income will it bring into the university and your department? Remains to be seen. How will the academic quality and integrity be ensured for a completely online course? That’s your job as academics; we’ve done the hard part by agreeing the contract. Can you see the contract? No, of course not …, er, confidential.’  For a second his eyes betrayed some doubt that he may have overused that particular response, but he gathered himself quickly and swept the room with a broad, flaccid grin.  ‘So I hope that’s put all your minds at rest that this is all above-board and being done this way for good reason?’  His expression hardened somewhat as his eye darted between Ramish Patel, who withered slightly as he felt the glare, and Vince Plumb, who for obvious reasons did not.  Jenny may not have understood much of the detail of the last three quarters of an hour, but she had worked out that these two had raised the concerns that had brought them all here: Ramish almost certainly well intentioned and with the best interests of the university at heart; Vince more likely simply for the mischief value.

A couple of people tried to ask questions, but Alan suddenly realised he had another meeting to go to urgently.  A few grunted pleasantries and a sharp ‘No!’ or two here and there and they all filed towards the door.  As Alan’s perfectly dressed hair bounced away down the corridor, Vince woke to the general disturbance, roused himself quickly and caught up with Jenny in the corridor.

‘So, are you feeling reassured?’ he chuckled.

Jenny considered for a moment.  In truth, most things about The Shack were still whirling around her in a blur.  The last hour’s nonsense had hardly registered above the general confusion of her first two weeks.  She’d already been given modules to teach in subjects that she didn’t really know, marking for assignments that she hadn’t set, procedures to follow that didn’t seem to make sense and, when she’d mentioned continuing her research work with anyone, they’d mostly responded with looks somewhere between amusement and nostalgic pity.  With everything else she had to deal with, she’d already decided – before Alan was half-way through – that she wasn’t going to spend any time worrying over whatever this was all about.

‘Half and half,’ she replied eventually.

‘Really! That much?’

‘Well, I half didn’t understand it, and half …, er no!’

Vince coughed up a genuine, full-throated laugh, which made her smile in return.  She’d sensed something of a kindred spirit in him through the chaos of her first two weeks; and yet there was something about him that made her less than entirely comfortable.  It could have just been a generational thing, but she already knew enough about him to know he was odd.

Vince Plumb (‘Professor Plumb’ to the delight of his students) had been a latecomer to academia.  (Again, Pat and Fatima had filled in the background.)  A reformed drug-addict and petty criminal, he had been scraped off the streets in his late twenties, sorted himself out, taken an Open University degree in his mid-thirties and eventually fluked a sessional lecturer’s job at a Brighton further education college, while he completed his PhD part-time at Sussex University.  He had moved to NSU, while it was still Deadend Polytechnic, 18 years previously and, with no particularly defined ambition, stayed there.  However, as a result of publishing well and successfully supervising numerous research students as the new university was established, he was quickly made a reader and eventually professor (under the somewhat historical process now romantically referred to as the ‘merit system’).  As he now approached retirement however, his dissolute earlier years had begun to catch up with him: although still clean, he was tiring both mentally and physically.  Whilst likeable, with a dry sense of humour, respected for his experience for the most part, and possibly with a better, resigned, practical understanding of the university’s Byzantine processes – and more importantly how to sidestep them – than anyone left standing, it could be difficult to decide whether to take him, or his advice, seriously, often because he didn’t know himself.  As Douglas Adams once said of Zaphod Beeblebrox, ‘He never appeared to have a reason for anything he did at all: he had turned unfathomably into an art form. He attacked everything in life with a mixture of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence and it was often difficult to tell which was which.’  Trying to work with Vince now, ‘was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. He was renowned for being amazingly clever and quite clearly was so – but not all the time, which obviously worried him, hence the act. He preferred people to be puzzled rather than contemptuous.’  And by-and-large and up-until-now this had mostly worked.  Aside from Pat and Fatima, he had been Jenny’s most helpful guide through her first two weeks.  He was unquestionably a kind, soft-hearted old sod but she couldn’t quite dismiss the impression that he also fancied her.

‘Well, whatever,’ he continued, ‘we should feel honoured. Don’t get the executive down here talking to the likes of us very often.’

‘Didn’t really say a lot though, did he?’

Vince shook his head.  ‘Was never going to. This is obviously something that’s been cooked up by senior management – the exec. There’s money in it somewhere or for someone but we won’t see any of it in the department.  Possibly even bent; who knows?  We’re not supposed to understand it – just get on with it; that’s the way it works. Or better still, if you can, stay well away from it!’

‘So why bother talking to us at all?’

‘Ticks a box somewhere, I suppose, or because the boss, the vice-chancellor, told him to.’  He paused, the tiniest hint of mischief in his eyes.  ‘And it’ll improve his MAP by an hour this week.’

‘His MAP?’

Vince grinned.  ‘Just a little measure I’ve developed over the years – well decades really.  My Management Activity Profile: MAP; it measures how useful a manager really is.’

‘And how does that work?’

‘Well, you realise over time that the best managers – and those are few and far between these days – tend to spend most of their time with the people they manage – their team.  Whereas the worst spend their time with other managers or people further up the tree.  The best boss I ever worked for, ‘Carol’, years ago, she spent all her time with us and flatly refused to even go to management meetings.  The department has never been so strong as when she was in charge: we had happy students, research funding coming in, we met socially outside work, it was great.  But, of course, she didn’t last long because she wasn’t popular with the exec.  She fought for us, not them.’

‘OK, but how do you measure that with your thing?’

‘Simple.  Add up the hours anyone spends with people below them in the management structure and subtract the hours spent with people at the same level or higher.  The result is your MAP: the more positive, the better.  Carol’s was usually plus 30 or 40 or so by Friday.  Shiny Boy’s is pretty piss-poor, of course – certainly negative, because – apart from his marketing team – he mostly shuts himself away with the VC and the rest of the exec, but he’s just improved it by an hour this week by talking to us.  What do you reckon?’

Jenny was about to suggest that, if the last hour had actually improved anything, the metric might need a bit of work, when they rounded a corner and nearly bumped into a short, wide, smartly-suited, middle-aged man – with about as red, shiny a face as could be imagined on a human – coming the other way, his tiny shoes tapping clippity-clop on the hard floor.  Jenny had passed him in the corridors before a few times and they’d nodded silent acknowledgments.  She hadn’t known who he was, although she’d sensed an impression of him being up for a conversation she’d not had time for.  You couldn’t miss him though or forget him: he looked like a huge toffee apple perched on top of a ‘we cater for all sizes here’ window display dummy.

‘Ah, Vince!’ the toffee apple gurgled enthusiastically.  ‘Hullo! How goes it?’

‘Fine thanks, George.’  Vince glanced between him and Jenny.  ‘Have you two met?  George, this is Dr. Jenny Weatherill, just joined us from Mugsborough.  Jenny, this is George Jolly – Professor Jolly (he seemed to place unusual emphasis on the title) – from the Business School.’  Jenny laughed inwardly: by Pat and Fatima’s estimations, there were barely a dozen professors in The Shack (‘it wasn’t that sort of university’) and she’d already had the ‘good fortune’ to meet three of them – and they all seemed strange in different ways.

They exchanged a few minutes’ small-talk, which George seemed happy to extend indefinitely. But Vince extricated them as soon as he could and they were quickly on their opposite ways, shoes clippity-clopping into the distance.  However, Vince couldn’t hide the smile the encounter had left in its wake.

‘Go on then,’ prompted Jenny with a laugh, ‘What’s the story?’  Pat and Fatima hadn’t covered this one.  With a grin and a swallow, Vince explained.

George Jolly, it appeared, had been – maybe was still – a wine-bar drinking chum of the previous principal.  He had first appeared at Deadend Institute 11 or 12 years before in the form of a ‘business advisor’.  It quickly emerged that his particular business expertise was running the mobile burger bar, which appeared outside the football ground on match-days and other local events.  Even back then, it was generally considered, particularly by Deadend Business School staff, that the principal might be overrating his talents somewhat.  ‘Mr. Cheese-Dog’, as he became quickly known, generally wasted people’s time and exasperated them more than he advised.

Unsurprisingly then, there was little appetite from existing research staff when it was announced that he had ambitions to take a PhD.  (His ‘experience’ would substitute for a complete void of academic qualifications.)  However, two members of the business school were reluctantly coerced – largely by the principal, having by this time become NSU’s first vice-chancellor – to take him on as his supervisors.  Equally unsurprising was the unequivocal catastrophe of the ensuing research project.  His thesis took twice as long as it should have to appear was nearly failed outright by the first set of examiners.  There then followed several rounds of academic appeal, replacement of examiners, revision and resubmission.  At one point, it was rumoured that half the executive admin team were writing and rewriting his thesis for him.  Eventually, by sheer attrition, he was given his PhD and ‘Dr. Cheese-Dog’ was immediately given a part-time lecturing role (by the VC), a somewhat notional position due to his being unable to teach any part of the school’s syllabus.

Almost the last act of the old VC, before being pretty much marched off campus for a cornucopia of misdemeanours – no longer able to be kept from the press, was to make his drinking pal a ‘visiting’ professor.  In truth, Vince admitted, chuckling, a professor that knows nothing is a far easier thing to cover for than a mere lecturer in the same position but the vexed question of what he actually did, and now who he answered to, still remained … and so did he.  Once a week, ‘Professor Cheese-Dog’ would put on a suit and tie and spend an agreeable day wandering the NSU corridors, drinking tea in most of the coffee shops and exchanging pleasantries with anyone whose eye he could catch.  Then he would go home.

‘So what’s his MAP then?’ asked Jenny, smiling, when Vince had finished.

‘Ah well, he’s not a manager so it’s not fair really but I suppose zero. Nothing minus nothing is nothing. He’s a nice enough guy but no-one really talks to him about anything important at all.  I don’t think you’d want to, to be honest.’

Vince and Jenny parted at his office door, and she continued to the one nearby she shared with Pat and Fatima.  A student was waiting outside, staring at the crudely printed temporary sign, blu-tacked to the door, that read ‘Dr. Fatima Laila, Ms. Pat Morris, Dr. Jenny Weatherill’.  She vaguely recognised him from class photos on the online record system but was pretty sure he’d never graced any of her lectures so far.

‘Dr. Weatherill?’ he suggested hesitantly.

‘Call me Jenny. We do first names here, remember?’

‘Oh right, er yes.’  That seemed like new information.  He dried up, then eventually restarted.  ‘I’m on your first-year electronics module.’

‘Oh OK,’ she tried to smile encouragement, but the silence resumed.  ‘And …?’ she tried after a while.

‘And I’ve not been coming to classes.’


‘Or handed the assignment in last week.’


Along with several other things she’d not come to terms with yet, Jenny had been thrown in to taking over this module the first day she’d started, from a colleague she hadn’t met, who had suddenly taken sick leave with a nervous breakdown.  He had set this work before he’d gone and now she would probably have to mark it.  Not yet though: there had been no time for even looking at it so far, so she had no idea what it was about, how much there was or who had or hadn’t done it.  But this guy staring at the floor in front of her was a more immediate issue.

‘So how can I help?’

‘I want to know what to do?’

‘Well, that depends.’  She hoped she remembered her crash-course on the regulations properly.  ‘If you get it in this week, that’s inside the seven-day limit and you can still get a pass.’

‘So what do I do?’

‘Er, hand it in?’

‘But I haven’t done the work.’

‘So do it.’

‘I don’t know how.’


He was picking up steam now.  He managed three sentences at once.  ‘I don’t get the assignment really.  In fact, I don’t think I understand electronics to be honest.  Actually, I don’t really like engineering at all.’


‘So what should I do?’

It had been another long day at the end of a second long week.  Jenny hadn’t just been thrown in at the Cack Shack deep end; she’d been handed weights as she fell, then thrown more each day to catch as she splashed to keep herself afloat.  She was already beyond tired and her reserves of patience were depleted, and here was an engineering student, who didn’t like engineering, asking what to do!  She felt herself slipping under.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she snapped. ‘Fail, I guess. Maybe find something else to do instead?’  Hell, she couldn’t stop now! ‘How about hairdressing?’  Mouth, enough!  ‘How about steal cars?’ Argh! She’d said it!

It was as if a switch had been flicked.  His eyes widened for a second, then he simultaneously burst into tears and became stroppy.

‘You can’t talk to me like that!’ he shrieked.  ‘I’ve got a learning disability. I’ve got a diagnosis. Student Support have agreed a learning plan with me.

She resurfaced instantly.  Bugger!  That was very likely true, she thought: she had been warned – by someone, somewhere.  The student support office, motivated by the best of intentions, were very good at agreeing ‘learning plans’ with students.  They generally involved impossible variations to teaching methods and unrealistic deviations from assessment or extensions to deadlines for work.  Lecturing staff would probably object to most of the changes if anyone thought to tell them … but luckily they usually didn’t.  The shit often only hit the fan at exam boards when students who hadn’t attended anything and failed every module were then revealed to have been ‘let down through inadequate adjustment by the programme team’.  She tried to placate him.

‘Sorry, that wasn’t advice,’ she blurted: the words were still bypassing her brain. ‘I meant that’s what might happen if we don’t do something.’  She tried to smile.  ‘We can still try to help. Maybe if we …’

But it was too late.  He had exhausted his repertoire and now turned on his heel and stomped away down the corridor.  There was no calling him back.

‘I’m going to make a complaint about this!’ he spat over his shoulder but without looking at her.

Jenny took a deep breath and let herself into the office.  Pat and Fatima hadn’t reappeared from Triple-A’s reassurance talk.  She was sure they didn’t have lectures this afternoon, so they’d probably buggered off home early.  She looked up at the clock.  Blimey, it wasn’t early!  Another day had passed in a blur.  She turned around and locked the door again on the way out.

It was time to go home.  It was Friday: the end of her tenth day at The Shack.  It had been utterly bonkers: exactly like the first nine.  A light drizzle had replaced the afternoon sun.  As she walked out through the front gate, she was hit by an awful moment of clarity: this probably wasn’t going to change.  Instead, she might slowly adapt to it: to cope, to normalise it.  After a year or so, she would understand things a bit more: like Pat and Fatima.  A couple of years after that: Ramish Patel?  A decade or more: sycophantic and slopey-shouldered like Bill Wiggins?  A few years further on: as battle-hardened, weary and cynical as Vince Plumb?


(End of Chapter 1. Chapter 2 will be available on 1st April!)

[Introduction] < > [Chapter 2]

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