The blue and yellow banners from the past week’s graduation ceremony draping the ornate lampposts of Pennington College’s Main Quad hung limp as platitudes in the warm summer air as Professors Richard Hertford and David Rheingold walked slowly towards Pargeter Hall. Both were lost in thought, and a casual observer noting their patched tweed jackets, tousled hair, and too-short pants could be forgiven for thinking that they were deep in contemplation of abstract Greek verbs or the minutia of Empedocles’ argumentation. But their focus was more immediate—and practical. Pennington College had a new President—a successful local businessman. And, if this wasn’t bad enough, he had just called a College-Wide Emergency Meeting to outline his plans to, as he put it, bring the College into what he called “the real world”. Hertford and Rheingold didn’t know what this meant, but they already knew they wouldn’t like it.
Rheingold broke the silence of their walk first. A philosopher specializing in the study of language, he’d made his name in the early 1980s with his paper (his seminal paper, as he often pointed out) “What Does ‘the Meaning of “Meaning”’ Mean?” which was described as “brilliant” by the few senior philosophers who were widely believed to understand it. His reputation had then been cemented over the next two decades with a series of papers in which he argued that these senior philosophers had not understood his view at all.
“You know,” he began, “We could argue that this man Brinkley really doesn’t understand what the real world is at all. After all, Berkeley’s view that we live in a world that that is made up of ideas still has a certain intuitive plausibility; it certainly can’t be disproved by our senses. All we ever experience are sensations of things—never the material objects that are supposed to cause these. So surely if this new man wants us to enter the real world he’ll have to tell us if it’s an immaterial world or a material one. And,” he concluded, with a grimace that passed for a smile, “I’m sure he can’t.”
Hertford sighed. A historian who specialized in the American Revolution he was used to dealing with what was called “the general public.” Often asked to lecture to community groups on Washington’s Crossing, the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, and, generally, Why American Pluck Wins Every Time, he’d realized quickly that the best way to get people’s eyes to glaze over was to start a pedantic quibble over terms. While this was useful knowledge to have when it came to dealing with Mormons and friendly fellow airplane travelers, he knew that his friend’s approach would not only fail to stall the new President, but would also irritate him. And a President irritated was a President who would look for ways to cut budgets in revenge.
“Maybe,” he said, and then paused, “Maybe we should wait until we hear what he has to say. Then we could work out how best to respond. Like we would if we were giving comments on a paper at a conference.”
Rheingold looked at him oddly. “You wait till you read the paper before giving comments?”
Hertford sighed again. He was beginning to sympathize with the Mormons.
* * * * *
Martin Richard Brinkley III rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet as he looked out across the beautifully manicured lawns of Main Quad from the two-storey windows of the President’s Office in Pargeter Hall. He was very, very happy, which meant that he was very, very pleased with himself. A small man, Brinkley had made up for his stature with a ferocious ambition: selling his start-up marketing firm to a major international conglomerate before he was 30, then pioneering innovations in viral marketing which led to his becoming the CEO of a publicly-traded company by 40. Now, several years on and retirement still an aneurysm away, he wanted to “give back to the community,” by which he meant mold part of it in his own image. And what better way than to turn the local sleepy but excellent college into a national liberal arts powerhouse by applying simple business principles to it, bringing its medieval faculty kicking and screaming into the 21st century? “Take those two,” he thought to himself as he surveyed the two scruffy figures meandering across the Quad, “what possible use could they be in shaping Pennington’s students into the razor-sharp entrepreneurs that the modern workplace demanded? How,” he thought, warming to his theme, “could people who had jobs for life possibly understand a world in which career changes and abrupt terminations were becoming the norm?” Well, if he couldn’t get rid of tenure (yet!) he could certainly bring the rest of the College in line with modern business. He grinned wolfishly, looking down as one of the shambling figures below appeared to trip on a stone. Poor lambs! This meeting was going to be fun.
* * * * *
“….and since that’s all there was to Dr. Johnson’s alleged refutation, just the kick of a stone” puffed Rheingold, stumbling a little after illustrating Johnson’s views with a convenient pebble, “It’s clear that he totally misunderstood what he was dealing with. After all, Berkeley’s point was that all of our sensations are real—that, everything just consists of combinations of sensations. An apple for example is just its redness, crispness, sweetness, and roundness. But none of this needs a material world to exist!” He smiled broadly up at his friend. But Hertford’s attention was elsewhere.
Rheingold looked up. Rushing towards them with an air of shambolic intensity was Gutjay Singh, Chair of English, and the most depressed man in the whole College. In an unusual burst of common sense Pennington, like many other colleges, housed its remedial writing programs in the English Department, a move that ensured that English had the unhappy combination of serving the largest number of students on campus, and having most of them hate the courses they took from it, a fact that they expressed with venom if not grammar in their evaluations of its teaching. This, combined with the fact that his faculty had the lowest rate of publication on campus—how could one write when one was constantly submerged in grading writing-intensive remedial courses?—had spawned rumors that under the new business-minded President English was facing some Very Bad Things.
But Singh was beaming. “I met with the President!” he gasped, out of breath from the long toil across the Quad. “I met with the President, and English is too big to fail! Too big to fail! We’re getting more faculty lines, more travel money, and fewer classes! We’re too big to fail and we’re saved!” He burbled in almost manic delight.
Hertford and Rheingold exchanged glances. “We can talk about this later,” said Rheingold, soothingly. “I’m sure that whatever he said isn’t set in stone. We can always adjust and compromise. But,” as they pushed open the doors of Pargeter Hall and entered the gloom, “Let’s just get through this wretched meeting, shall we?”
Things were going well. To be sure, he’d not expected quite as much argument from the Chair of English, but once he’d managed to convince the man that “More faculty lines, more money, and fewer classes” was not synonymous with “Firing deadwood faculty, refusing to throw good money after bad, and increasing productivity” he’d been nothing but smiles and effusive thanks. But that, he thought cruelly, was the only pleasant news he had to deliver today—which was why he’d given it first. Let that Singh fellow talk with others, let them become complacent, and then the hammer blow of harsh reality would fall with even more surprise and less opposition. Brinkley smiled. That management seminar had been worth every penny of the $10, 000 it had cost his former employer.
Looking over the sea of tweeds of the assembled faculty, punctuated by the occasional suits of the Management faculty and the jet black dress that marked the female faculty members of English (were they in anticipatory mourning, he wondered?), Brinkley moved to the meat of his speech. This was it. Get it over quickly, then leave before questions.
“Pennington College: A New Paradigm in Higher Education”. He paused, letting this sink in. “And what is this new paradigm? Not a new and trendy education policy,” (glowers from the Education faculty), “but the long-overdue marriage of sound business principles to higher education” (smiles from Management, frowns from everyone else). “First, to compete in a global economy Pennington must draw its faculty from the global marketplace. You might think of ‘outsourcing’ as a bad thing for America’s workers—but let me assure you, it is good for those same workers as they too are consumers—and increased competition is good for consumers”. (No need to belabor this, but always good to get people on your side, so…) “Indeed, our very own Angus Brunahabinn has written extensively on this in some of the top economics journals.” (Why were they tittering? He’d pronounced that damn Gaelic name correctly — he’d spent weeks making late-night calls to the voicemails of every non-American faculty member to check on pronunciations of their names… almost a third of his total staff. It was probably nerves. No-one liked facing more competition; outsourcing was still a hard sell in business, too.) “Second, we will also have a full working week for all faculty; 40 hours, with timesheets to log hours”. (Gasps—yes, that got their attention!) “Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to work outside your ten-month contracts!” (But instead of the expected chuckles, only puzzlement. Why?) “And, finally, I will be working with your Union to review salary scales.” (Blank, deer-in-headlights stares of amazement now! Good!) “I will make sure that your salaries are commensurate with those of similarly-qualified professionals in the real world” (and that will end the damn bloat!) “Of course, I will be establishing a series of Steering Committees to look into these matters in detail…”
* * * * *
“It’s terrible! He can’t make us do that! 40 hours a week!” Rheingold was almost beside himself with incoherent rage. “It would be impossible! That barely covers teaching, let alone administration and research! And he’s not letting us work during the summer, either! I prep all my classes then, and write! He’s crazy! I won’t stand for it!” Hertford smiled; like many academics, his friend saw difficulties everywhere.
“But remember, Davey,” he soothed, “He realizes the importance of hiring non-citizens; we’ve always had to struggle with working around those dumb visa regulations designed to protect non-academics from competition, and he’s on our side! And think of our new salaries! We’ll be paid like doctors, or lawyers!” He did a little dance of joy. “We’ll finally be earning more than our recent graduates! And he’s saving English!”
“But the hours!” groaned Rheingold. “And the summers!”
“He can’t enforce that. What’s he going to do, say we can’t work? We don’t have to abide by all of this ‘real world’ stuff, you know! After all, we’re not in business!” Another little jig of joy, the gravel under his feet crunching musically as a fresh light breeze made the graduation banners ruffle and sway happily.
“And think, Davey, I’ve heard that people in business get bonuses! Finish up your defense of Berkeley’s objections to materialism, publish, and you might get paid extra just for doing your job!” Hertford’s start of another jig of joy was stopped short by a large stone that caught his foot and threatened to unbalance him. Oddly, its apparent hardness was unexpectedly comforting.
Hamish Kilgour is the pen name of James Taylor, an associate professor at the College of New Jersey. He lives with his family in Pennington and writes fiction when not penning academic tomes.