On the tenth day of Christmas

On the tenth day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Ten New Professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight Interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university


“Can we make a start, please, gentlemen. And, er, lady.” Sam smiled graciously at Karen, who was sitting to his right.

Karen did not return the smile. Prat. Pity he’d been confirmed in the DVC’s post.

The others made their way from the refreshments table. They were in no hurry. Karen caught snatches of their conversation. If boasting counted as conversation these days.

“…high H factor…”
“…really competitive, but the reviewer said we’d almost done enough…”
“…higher than…”
“…almost REFfable already…”

She sighed, and tried to tune them out. Would anyone notice if she brought the Jobs.ac.uk website up during the meeting ?

Sam cleared his throat loudly. There was a very gradual reduction in the noise level, and eyes began to be turned in his direction.

“Right, well, let’s get on.”

“Now, first, Julie from the Secretary’s office couldn’t be here to take the minutes, so, Karen, I was wondering if you could do it?”

Karen’s look was glacial. “No, sorry. I’m leading on two items, I can’t take minutes and present them.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Alright then. Um. Any volunteers?”

The other members of the Research Committee fixed their gazes on the table.

Sam sighed. “Well, OK, I guess I’ll have a go. That way they can say whatever I like, I suppose!”

“Right. Well. First item. Chair’s report.” He looked at his notes. “I don’t have much to say, actually. Nearly Christmas, bit of a dead time for research news, isn’t it? Um. Let me see. Nope, I don’t think I’ve heard about any new grants since last time. Anyone else?”

There was a collective shaking of heads. Karen raised her hand slightly.

“Karen?”

“The library have secured a large grant from the EU to research student attitudes to electronic library use.”

“The library? Is it proper research?”

Karen sighed. “Well, it’s Horizon 2020, if you count that as proper research.”

Sam wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic. “Well, that sounds marvellous. Can you send me the details over? And get it into the weekly newsletter?”

“Again? OK, if you think people won’t mind it appearing for a second time.”

Sam was leaning towards ‘yes, she’s being sarcastic,’ but he still wasn’t completely sure, so he played safe. “Oh, gosh, I must have missed that week. Maybe it was when I was in China on university business.”

“Maybe so. I’ll send you the summary.” Karen stopped herself from adding ‘again’. Keep your powder dry, she told herself. She even forced herself to give a pinched smile, to show she wasn’t really being sarcastic. Even though she was.

“Great. Well, well done to the library. Can we minute that?” He looked at Karen. She looked back. “Oh, of course, it’s me. I’ll minute that!” He wrote on the pad in front of him.

The Research Committee sat in silence while they waited for him to finish his notes.

The meeting droned on. There were so many standing items that Karen was sure it was an exact repeat of the last meeting. And the one before that. She contributed her reports mechanically; they were received without interest. She was just looking at the details of an likely looking job in London when a change in Sam’s tone caught her attention.

“Right. Item eight. Oh, this is exciting.”

The Research Committee did not look particularly excited.

Sam looked up. “Yes, this is great. Remember that meeting we had just before the REF submission, where I challenged you to help me to recruit some stars? In fact, one of them is sitting here now – take a bow, Nigel!” Nigel nodded his head gently in recognition.

“Right. Well. We’ve been given some more money to do the same again. In fact,” he paused, the better to prepare his audience for the full impact of his announcement, “in fact, we can recruit TEN new professors between now and September. What do you think of that?”

It was plain that the Research Committee didn’t know what to think. They sat in silence. Eventually, Nigel put up his hand.

“The thing is, Sam. It’s great that you’ve got some funding for more research, I think we’re all delighted about that. But is this really the right place to be spending it? I mean, professors, you know, they’re expensive.” Nigel’s use of the third person implied that he disapproved of the professorial salary scale. “I don’t know if I speak for my colleagues here, but, you know, I could really do with a few more young researchers on the team, I mean, we could get two post-docs for the price of a professor, maybe even two and a half, and think how much work they could do. We could go stratospheric with publications! And we wouldn’t be tied into permanent contracts and all of the expense that brings.”

There were nods of approval around the table. The Research Committee became almost animated.

Sam looked as though he’d been expecting this line of discussion. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms behind his head. “Ah, well, the VC’s one step ahead of you there.”

“We’re going to get post-docs as well?”

“The new professors will each be allowed to recruit one post-doc and two research students ‘on the house’, as they say. Plus of course any more  they can afford with the funding they bring in. So you’re right, we’re expecting very big things.”

There was a short pause while this sank in.

Nigel seemed to have taken on the mantle of group spokesman, perhaps as a result of having been identified as one of Burston Central’s stars, or just because he was quite new, and perhaps idealistic about the possibilities of research at the university, or bravado, or a combination of all of those things. He tried again.

“I must have got this wrong, Sam. It sounds as though you’re proposing to recruit ten completely new research groups, rather than consolidating existing ones.” This was exactly how Nigel himself had been recruited. Though there’d be no mention of post-docs and research students that time round – since on that occasion, existing publications had been the key selling point of the candidates.

“Well, I prefer to call it ensuring that we have a well-rounded portfolio of activity, Nigel.”

“But, you might, you might, you might end up with new research groups in competition with existing ones. Surely we need to have some input into the strategy?”

“Now then, I think you can trust me to work strategically to get the right balance of exciting new work with the existing situation.”

Sam looked at his watch. “We really do need to get on. Now, we’re going to follow the same process as last time. We’ll have a search committee, nominations to me by the end of December, I’ll follow up with personal communications. Please treat this as confidential. It’s a very specialist process, as you know. Advertising won’t get us the candidates we need, and I don’t want to raise people’s expectations.”

Phil raised his hand. Sam nodded to him.

“Would you consider internal candidates?”

Sam tilted his head to one side. “I’m inclined to think that we offer opportunities to internal candidates through the Research Recognition Scheme. If people haven’t been successful in that…”

“But internal appointments are different. They don’t have additional staffing…” Phil tailed off.

The other members of the Research Committee were carefully looking elsewhere: at the table, at their devices, at Sam. Poor old Phil. Professorial applications were each considered by the Committee. Obviously, Phil had had to leave the room while his was discussed, but he knew the process. The consensus had been that he should have known better than to attempt an application.  As Sam had said at the time, ” If we gave them out like Smarties, where would we be?” It was a shame he had to continue on the Committee, but his head of department had insisted.

Sam broke the silence. “Right. Names to me by the end of December. I’ll be checking my mail all through Christmas, so keep them coming. I’ll need names, contact details, brief CVs. Next meeting, er, do we have a date yet?” He looked at Karen. She looked back at him, making no effort to check her iPad.

Phil was tapping away on his. “26 January.”

“Great, thanks, Phil. See you all then. Oh, and have a good break.” he added.

Sam got his head down and busied himself with his notes until the rest of the Committee had left the room. One or two lingered, perhaps hoping to speak to him, but his resolute attention to the page deterred them all. Once the door had closed, he looked up, scooped up the notes, picked up his coat, shovelled the last of the biscuits from the refreshment table into his bag, and walked to the door. Four o’clock. Hardly worth starting anything new now. He headed for the car park.

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Peter looked at his watch and swore under his breath. He broke into a light jog. as he passed a group of students lounging on the grass in the little park, they cheered. “Keep going, Prof!” “Nearly there!” “You can do it!”

Peter grimaced. Bloody students. He turned slightly as if to make a gesture at them, but he could feel the papers starting to slip from the thick manila folder he was carrying. He made a grab at the folder with his free hand and continued on his way.

He made it over to the main building and stopped just inside the revolving doors. His chest was heaving. Spotting the security guard heading over, he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a lanyard with his ID on it, waving it vaguely in his direction, then replacing it.

The guard kept moving towards him, and stopped between Peter and the lift door.

“Morning, Professor Packer. I’m afraid you need to keep that ID visible at all times in this building.”

Peter looked witheringly at him. “You know who I am. You’ve just proved it. What extra value is conferred by this bit of plastic?” The effect was mitigated by his need to take huge, gasping, breaths between sentences.

“One rule for everyone, sir.”

“I don’t have time for this nonsense. Haven’t you got anything more useful to do?” Peter straightened up and set off again. In the lift, he checked the mirrors. He tucked in his shirt, sucked in his abdomen, and patted ineffectually at his hair. At least he still had some. Not much to be done about the sweaty forehead and red face.

He got out on the sixth floor and made for the meeting room. He burst through the doorway and stood for a moment. The room was small and the only seat left at the table was on the far side of the room. He squeezed past his colleagues and fitted himself into the under-sized chair, which didn’t quite go under the table properly.

He plonked the bulging folder down hard on the table and took a deep breath in. He looked up. His fussy, dishevelled entrance had made him the centre of attention. He shrugged. “Morning, all. Sorry I’m late. Very busy.”

This caused some snorting and eye-rolling around the table. They were all busy.

“Right. Well. Glad you could spare the time, Peter.”  Sam looked down at his papers. “OK. Let’s get on, I know that everyone is very busy.” The emphasis on ‘everyone’ was slight, but noticeable. He looked up.  “We’ve got a lot to get through. Thanks to everyone for coming – it’s key to have someone from every faculty at every meeting. I want us all to leave here with a clear idea of targets for the final REF submission. As you all know, I’m currently covering the Acting DVC role. That means that I haven’t had as much time as I’d have liked to work on the REF stuff. I’ve managed to get my own faculty figures together, but for the rest, it’s over to you. Also, I’ve asked Karen from the Research Office to join us to give us a hand.” Karen smiled brightly and gave a little wave, generating a fresh round of discreet eye-rolling.

“Right” Sam continued. “Let’s go round the table and get a progress report from everyone.”

One by one they opened up their folders and provided a lengthy, glowing report for their own faculties. Sam took copious notes. Once everyone had spoken, he pushed a sheet of paper over towards Karen and bent his head towards her. She nodded.

Karen spoke for the first time in the meeting. “OK, everyone. There’s some good progress there, but I think there are still some serious gaps.”

One or two people looked incredulous. “Gaps?” said Ross. He leaned towards Peter. “What the hell does SHE know about research?” His attempt at a whisper fell short.

Karen’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. Gaps.” She checked her notes. “We’re short of a substantial grant in Humanities. No post-docs AT ALL in that faculty. We need at least three quality submissions in health-related, there’s nothing I can use there.” Sam winced. “We need some policy impacts from Agriculture or Education – got nothing there either. Some public service work from Sociology or Politics? And Engineering is way off the pace compared to similar universities. And as for sciences…nothing in PNAS, even? I mean, Nature or even Nature Materials might be aiming a bit high, but surely  we can do better than,” she looked down again. “The Shropshire Journal of Applied Research in Soil Chemistry?” She fixed her eyes on Chris, the representative from the Faculty of Science.  “OK, those are the major problems from my point of view.”

There was a stunned silence.

Followed by a joint outburst. They were agreed on their dislike of Karen, at least.

Sam let them run on for precisely 15 seconds. “STOP.”

“Karen’s right. We aren’t as strong as we need to be. And she has a list of areas we must fill. The Vice Chancellor has given her carte blanche to sort this out.”

There was a stunned silence.

Followed by a joint outburst.

“It’s too late now.”

“There’s a wait of 18 months to publish in the top-cited journals.”

“He should have thought of that earlier, and given us some support.”

“Has he seen our teaching loads in Humanities?”

Sam stood up. Silence fell. He waited for a moment, then sat down again.

“Thank you. Look. We have to act here. I know you’ve all done your best. But we need to throw some serious money at this now. We’re going to have to bring in some big guns.”

The silence around the table continued. “We haven’t got time to advertise. So. I want a list from each of you by Friday of three top targets for acquisition. Then we’ll make moves.”

Peter piped up. “Are we allowed to recruit like that? What about equal opportunities?”

Sam nodded sagely. “You’re right, Peter. And normally, we would always go through the proper procedures, of course we would. But this is urgent. And the chances are we’d end up with the same people anyway.” He looked around the table. Apart from Karen, every single person there was male, white and middle-aged, with two degrees from pre-1992 universities. “We were all appointed using the proper procedures, and look at us.”

There were nods. “True, that.”

Sam pulled his papers together. “Right, that’s settled then. The transfer window is open at Burston Central. Two pints for the person who brings in the biggest hitter by 1 August.”

The group sniggered as they got ready to leave. The challenge was on.