‘Nathaniel Shackleton University is located on the edge of the main industrial estate, north of the town of Deadend, 22 miles to the east of the city of Mugsborough, in the county of Mugshire. It was made a full UK university in 2006.’ Also, according to the same page on its website, the university ‘can trace its origins back to an engineering college, which stood on the site of the current bus station [in Deadend] from 1863.’ This, however, is somewhat less than the whole story.
When, around the turn of the millennium, the board of governors and senior executive of Deadend Institute (previously Deadend Polytechnic) were trying – university status as a vision – to establish the town’s academic heritage, a number of options were considered. The closest thing the town had to a tourist attraction were some marks carved into a large rock down by the Dead River, widely-assumed – though with little archaeological authority – to be prehistoric. Although suggested by some as evidence of early counting (hence mathematics), this was eventually considered tenuous. Also putting an ‘Est. ….’ date on the coat-of-arms already being doodled in staffrooms would prove problematic.
Similar fates befell attempts to link the aspiring university to a Roman site, 35 miles to the east (in a different county), which ‘may have had a schoolhouse of sorts’, a monastery that once stood on the edge of town, a fabled band of itinerant minstrels, an apocryphal 17th century library of social erotica and a military training camp during the Napoleonic wars. Eventually, the claim regarding the bus station engineering college was uncovered (some cynics suggested ‘created’) and the date was officially accepted as the origins of higher education in Deadend.
Then there was the issue of the new name. ‘Deadend University’ (or ‘University of Deadend’) were not favoured by the consultants as expressive of a promising career launch-pad, and it was known that ‘East Mugsborough’ or ‘Mugshire’ would be opposed by the existing red-brick in the county’s capital. With town, city and county eliminated from consideration, only three widely accepted naming conventions for new universities remained: Something ‘Metropolitan’, an obscure regional title (‘University of the Middle Inlands’ for example) or find someone of local significance to name it after. Unfortunately, in terms of the first, Deadend wasn’t remotely ‘metropolitan’ by anybody’s reckoning, no geographical consensus could be found for the second, and an even bigger problem emerged with the last.
It turned out that hardly anyone of note had ever been born in or lived near Deadend and those few that had already had laboratories and suchlike named after them at nearby Mugsborough University. Moreover, the town’s history was so uniformly dull that there were hardly any locals of lasting significance irrespective of their fame – or lack thereof – beyond its environs. Widening the search to anybody with even a passing connection to the town was proving equally fruitless until the HR director spotted a story in the local newspaper.
The London theatre director, Nathaniel Shackleton, had died earlier in the year and The Deadend Times, in a feature on a local hotel-inn with a long history, listed him – amongst others – as a regular user of its facilities for ‘creative meetings and overnight stays with aspiring actresses’. When a sanitised version of the story was brought to the attention of the board of governors and senior executive, most had no idea who Nathaniel Shackleton was, some thought broadly – and in the absence of anything better – that he ‘might do’ and the rest (including the principal and would-be vice chancellor) confused him with Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer. On balance, it looked like a goer. Both families’ approvals were quickly sought and granted (albeit with diverse bemusement since one had no idea why a university would want to be named after him and the other no idea who he was) and there being then, for entirely different reasons, no actual objection anywhere, and with time running out on the submission to the Privy Council, the name was quickly adopted.
Thus, Nathaniel Shackleton University (NSU) ‘Est. 1863’ was born, and with its acronym, a lifetime’s supply of knob-jokes. Its coat-of-arms consisted of the letters N, S and U arranged around a compass, with the N and S appropriately at north and south positions but the U where an E would be expected. (The eventual decision not to have anything at all at the balancing W position cost an extra £50,000 in consultancy). Most people read it as ‘NUS’ instead, which naturally caused further problems with the student union, and, in 2008, the logo came third in an online poll for the ‘worst corporate image of the year’. Subsequently, as the rarely-spoken-out-loud realisation that ‘we’ve got the wrong Shackleton’ permeated to different levels, and eventually the directorate, marketing gradually adapted: on the coat-of-arms, for example, the ‘Nathaniel’ shrunk incrementally and the ‘Shackleton’ grew while the logo had its colour palette modified to make the offending parts less prominent (although the remaining ‘SU’ – or possibly ‘US’ – still caused problems and the end result looked rather like a poor photocopy). The Latin motto had been intended to read ‘Education through Life’ but – through some confusion with a Buddhist pocket guide and a Powerpoint template – came out closer to ‘Suffering from Education’. Staff were soon encouraged to refer to the university as ‘Shackleton University’ or ‘Shackleton’ only but, by this time, the informal ‘The Shack’ (sometimes ‘Cack Shack’) had already been adopted by most.
Naturally, over time, NSU developed the type of executive management typical of such institutions. Experience was sacrificed to finance: older academics, on higher salaries, were shown the door. New, low-paid staff were recruited – on very precarious contracts – to supposedly raise the university’s research profile, then immediately swamped with teaching and admin so they could do no research. Nothing mattered so long as the books balanced. During the initial 2020/21 coronavirus crisis, the university sent students away (including overseas students with nowhere else to live) but insisted admin and teaching staff continue working on site. Four of the few remaining older employees died.
In 2018, an edit to the university’s Wikipedia page reading, ‘Nat Shackleton was a nice enough bloke who didn’t really do much and his vision lives on at NSU’ went undetected for 134 days and was only eventually discovered by marketing staff copy/pasting material they couldn’t find on the university’s intranet into another document. Also, in recent years, newer research has pointed to the supposed engineering college, where the bus station currently stands, as having instead been a lunatic asylum. Someone may update the university website accordingly one day. Or perhaps nobody cares any more. Or, having read what follows, it might just seem entirely appropriate.
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