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It's All Academic
By David Fleming
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 David Fleming
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Chapter OneMichael Hartley's dead body turned up at the same time I turned up for my first day at Boan University. I, of course, didn't know that at the time, but only found out when Bil Berninski interrupted the President's Cabinet meeting later that morning. Little did I know at the time how the specter of Hartley would haunt my tenure at Boan.
I barely had time to dump my box of personal belongings: my Duquesne and Ohio State diplomas, my recognition rewards from Farrington College, my pictures of Natalie and Alyssa, all the various knick-knacks gathered through the years that had made my office at Farrington resemble some overstocked stall at any number of craft and antique malls across the country. I had told Natalie that my office at Boan would not end up that way, but in the month leading up to my first day, the box had not been cleaned out before I dropped it off at my office in the Boan Administration Building.
I dumped the box on the corner of my massive mahogany desk at 7:15 AM, and pulled from the top one item: a trio of pictures of my family connected in one large frame. In one picture from the previous spring, Natalie and Alyssa are hugging each other under the crabapple tree at our old property. The tree's amazing pink colors frame their beauty wonderfully. Next to that, there is a picture of the two of them sitting on a blanket by the fire pit behind our current house. The night sky behind them is similar to the pink of the crabapple tree. Natalie is laughing at something Alyssa has said, while Alyssa's own expression is of one deep in thought. And, then, in the third picture, Alyssa is playfully smacking her mother with a stuffed Boan Sturgeon. You can read on the stuffed fish, "You can come to Boan, You can graduate from Boan, but you're Boan Forever." Natalie thought it tacky when I brought the stuffed sturgeon home for Alyssa after my interviews, but I was enamored by it. The trio of pictures was set on the desk's best vantage point: "The past, the present and the future," I whispered to myself, grabbing my notebook and pen.
I dashed across campus to Butler Hall, where President's Cabinet was to begin promptly at 7:30. Earlier that morning, kissing Natalie good morning, I had told her that the 7:30 Monday morning Cabinet meetings would kill me.
"What's the big deal?" Natalie asked while peeling and sectioning grapefruit. "You almost always get to the office before 8:00."
I was fidgeting with my tie, bothered by the length. No matter how many times I had worn ties during the fifteen years of my professional life, I still often left too much dangling. It was one of those little things that could drive me crazy. "That first half hour, though, is my time. I like sorting through the weekend e-mails, prioritizing my tasks for the day, skimming the Chronicle's headlines."
"Uh-huh." Natalie was paying more attention to breakfast than to my answer.
"What is the President's Cabinet, Daddy?" Alyssa was reading a book, twirling her long black hair with her fingers, at the breakfast table. No matter how many times we told her not to read at the breakfast table, she still did. I was a bit of a hypocrite to chastise her for reading at the table. I did the same thing growing up. My daughter had definitely inherited from me a lot more than dark brown eyes, a crooked nose, and a tendency to walk pigeon-toed.
"It's when the president's direct reports meet to discuss high level decisions for the university."
"Uh-huh." A book dominated my daughter's attention. It was hard to criticize her there.
Truth be told, anxiety gripped my stomach. Unwilling to admit it openly to my family, I worried that I had ascended to a provost position too quickly. Advancement had been easy at Farrington, where the culture evolved alongside of me. However, Boan represented new territory. I had spent two and a half packed days of interviews with Boan leadership. Boan's president, Bob Berrian, was an intense man known for pushing his people hard, but rewarding them when they succeeded. In contrast, Farrington's provost, Neil Jensen, was laid back, who, while enjoyable to work for, could have provided me greater direction and acknowledgement. As a result, I approached my first day at Boan feeling a combination of excitement and intimidation. Would my instincts guide me through the unexpected? I would hopefully find out soon enough, getting my trial by fire at a President's Cabinet meeting.
Walking the short distance to Butler Hall, I wondered what would be on the agenda. During the interviews a number of interesting strategic ideas had emerged: expanding the College of Arts and Sciences; starting a football program; instituting a professor emeritus program; developing partnerships with regional high schools; increasing scholarships. The last few weeks, in the transition between Farrington dean and Boan provost, I bounced back and forth between surges of excitement and deep feelings of dread regarding my potential success.
I bounded up the stone steps of Butler Hall and through the heavy wooden doors, instantly reminded of a church entrance. In the hallway, Hank Turing, the CFO, tried to balance a cup of coffee, bagel, knife and container of cream cheese. "Hey, Hank, can I help you?"
"Oh, hey, Mark. Welcome. Helluva way to start a job, eh, with a five-hour cabinet meeting?" He continued to try to balance his breakfast. Had he not heard my offer, or was he simply ignoring it?
"Five hours! You're kidding me, right?" My right hand went out to support the dangling cream cheese container, but Hank remained oblivious to my attempt to help.
"No. The intent is to work hard to 12:00, then do lunch together and discuss more topics informally." Hank moved toward the door of the meeting room, and I had no idea how he planned to pull the door open as he balanced his breakfast and his notebook crammed full of papers. His full head of dark, black hair was blown across his head, giving him a little boy look.
"Hmm. Wish someone had told me this at the interviews. It might have changed my decision. Here, let me help with that door." As with Butler's outer doors, the inner doors were heavy oak.
Hank chortled and tried to pull the door handle with his pinky finger. I simply jumped in front of him and grabbed the door. "Uh, thanks," Hank muttered as he walked into the room.
So far, no one else had arrived. Three tables had been moved to form a U-shape in the center of the room. There was little else, a chalkboard, tables shoved to the side, and no windows. Gazing around the barren room, I realized I needed to find coffee.
"Is there no coffee brought to this meeting?"
"Usually." Hank didn't offer explanation as to why he had brought his own coffee.
"So, where did you get your coffee and bagel?"
"Back at the commons area." Hank waved his arm in such a way that he could have been referring to at least three of the cardinal directions. I decided to stick my head out Butler Hall to try and recognize the commons. It had served as one of dozens of buildings for wining, dining, probing and prodding candidates during the interview process. I glanced at my watch: 7:23. Was there time to grab coffee and get back? Probably not.
"Be right back," I muttered to Hank, who had settled into a corner seat at the U-shape table.
Opening the heavy door to look out of Butler Hall, I saw President Berrian walking with Caroline Cruz and Veronica Miller toward Butler Hall. So much for getting to the commons.
"Mark!" bellowed Bob Berrian as he came to the foot of the steps to Butler's main door. "Welcome! Welcome! So glad to have you starting with us today."
"Thanks, Bob. I have one important question if you want me to be productive at all at this unfortunate hour. Where's the coffee?"
"Haven't they brought any?" asked Veronica, Bob's administrative assistant. "Dang, those girls can never get it to us by 7:30."
"I suspect it's pretty hectic in the kitchen in the mornings," responded Caroline sharply. "After all, they have to take care of the students in the dorms." The nicely shaped, sharply dressed Cruz served as the Executive Vice President for Student Services, who during my interview sessions responded in cutting and quick ways. At both interviews in which she participated, she sat apart from everyone else. Was that her choice or others'? "I'm constantly telling Bob that we must put students first," she commented directly to me.
"What the hell is an idea like that?" laughed Berrian as he crossed through the door I held open for him. His black pinstripe suit was freshly tailoredno wrinkles or crinkles or rumples. Immediately, my suit pants didn't seem up to snuff, already looking pathetic from the fifteen-minute drive to the office. Berrian's blond hair was also perfectly coiffed, and the aroma of a men's cologne lingered strongly for several seconds after he had entered Butler Hall. He truly looked intimidating, standing over six feet, four inches tall in an impeccably tailored suit.
Veronica nodded her thanks as she entered Butler Hall, and Caroline Cruz, who delayed on the steps for several seconds, finally crossed through and allowed me to re-enter the building.
"Anyway, don't worry about it, Mark. The coffee will get here!" Berrian moved quickly toward the meeting room. I clearly had to abandon the hope of coffee until the "girls" brought some.
"Who the hell we missing?" barked President Berrian as he settled down at the head of the U, Hank to his right.
"Uh, Shue and Woo, sir," said Veronica, settling directly to the president's left, bustling about to set up her laptop.
"Shue and Woo? That sounds like a combination pest control business and dating service," I chuckled.
My new boss laughed. 'That joke isn't that funny,' I thought.
"That's a funny one, Carter. Chalk one up to the new guy. Shue's going to have some stiff competition."
"What kind of competition, Mr. President?" asked Howard Shue, appearing in the doorway. "I do believe a call to human resources is required to report your reference to stiff." Instantly, my self-consciousness regarding my attire faded away. Shue's suit represented the exact opposite of Berrian's. Berrian's was conservative in its black pinstripe; Shue's cream. Berrian's was accompanied by a tasteful tie that likely cost him three figures; Shue's tie was adorned with the Nike logo. Berrian's was neatly pressed and still didn't look like he had ever been in it; Shue's was wrinkled and showed wear in the elbows. Rumors had it that Berrian and Shue were thick as thieves, but comparing them now, I wondered how that could possibly be true. Howard's mismatch went all the way to his physical being: overweight, maybe five and a half feet tall, balding brown hair that barely covered from the top of his forehead to the top of his ears.
"Speaking of HR, we're still waiting for Mr. Woo, aren't we?" Berrian looked at his watch. "7:33. I say we start anyway. Veronica, you have agendas to pass out?"
"Yes, Bob." She started handing sheets of paper down the table. Veronica's hands, despite her ageshe had been at Boan for over twenty-five yearswere remarkably wrinkle free and sported a slightly outrageous bright red fingernail polish. Her lips barely had the hint of a red lipstick that accentuated her angular face and short brown hair nicely.
Two places remained for me to sit, both at the ends of the U. Howard had slid in next to Hank, while Caroline took her place next to Veronica. I decided to stay on the other side of the U from Caroline. I took my jacket off and hung it on the chair behind me. Berrian had taken his off, but Howard and Hank had not.
The agenda had not been sent out ahead of time. I kept waiting for it the previous week. Everyone at Farrington College had been religious about getting agendas out a week ahead of time. Sometimes that drove me crazy, but no surprise agenda items showed up at a meeting. I wasn't sure, yet, what to make of the lack of advanced agenda at Boan.
"O.k., here's what we got. Enrollment update from Howard. House of Cards Scholarship night, Howard. Endowment Perpetuity, Howard. Sexual Harassment policy, Victor. You can bring up your stiff joke then, Howard." Berrian laughed at his own joke so hard that he actually ended up coughing for a couple of seconds. I looked longingly at the door, hoping for the mythical girls with the coffee.
Berrian charged on reading the agenda: "Spirit Week, Caroline. Library renovation update, Hank. Debit cards, Caroline and Hank. Cabinet retreat, me. Average Class Size, Caroline. College of Education Naming, Howard. Textbook buyback policy, Caroline. Hiring Update, Victor. Bowling Team Incident in Gray Dorm, Caroline. Carter Initiation, all."
Wow, there I was at the end of a fourteen-item agenda. I don't know what scared me more: The length of the agenda (at Farrington, we knew that anything more than a six-item agenda would result in a meeting of over three hours; Hank had already acknowledged this morning that we would meet for five hours); the thought of an initiation (whatever the hell that meant); or that my initiation would come at the end of this certain-to-be-exhausting meeting. No one had told me that provosts should pass endurance tests.
"Well, if you ask me, Bob, my initiation must be surviving a fourteen-item, five-hour agenda!" Perhaps the joke was inappropriate especially for day one, but frank and good-natured honesty had been the foundation of my reputation as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Farrington.
Bob, Veronica and Howard laughed quite loudly at my quip; Hank and Caroline barely cracked a smile.
"Anything we should add to the agenda?" asked Berrian. No one's eyes lifted from the spot on the table directly in front of them. "Nope? Then, how's enrollment, Howard?"
"We're above on actual, behind on stretch, right about on target for goal." Howard shuffled a thick stack of papers, a series of spreadsheets with maybe thirty or forty lines of tiny print each page, around in front of him. "I think we're doing pretty well for this time of year," Howard added.
"What do you mean this time of year?" asked Hank. "It's late summer. If we don't hit fall stretch goals in the next six days, we're going to fall behind, no matter how damn good the actual is."
"Well, stretch is tricky to predict."
"Try what, Hank?"
"Try to predict. You say we're behind on stretch. By how much? What is the ripple effect of that non-stretching?" Hank took a huge bite out of his bagel. My grapefruit and yogurt certainly wouldn't hold me long. I looked back at the door. 'Where the hell is that coffee?'
Howard leaned back in his chair and looked at the president, as if he was the judge in a trial who would over-rule Hank's objection. Berrian simply smiled and nodded to Howard to continue.
Howard sighed. "O.k., I'll try to make this as simple as possible." He ruffled through his pages of spreadsheets again. "First, let's remove all the new admissions reps. That's anyone who has started in the last six weeks. They have not been here long enough yet to impact their stretch goals. Second, take the...."
"Hold on, Howard. How many reps are 'new' as you've just defined it?" Caroline snarled.
"That would be, uh, hold on a minute." Howard had one of the sheets from his pile up close to his glasses as he tried to read the tiny font. "I believe that is five new reps."
"Does each have the same stretch goals?" Caroline asked.
"No, certainly not," responded Howard. "For instance, Carla Hoopsnaggle is the new nursing admissions rep. Her stretch goal is twice what the others are, as frankly all we have to do is scrawl 'nursing degrees' on a napkin and leave it on the street to get a ton of applicants. Similarly, Wayne Wellington has a higher stretch goal for applicants in the education graduate program. Jeez, teaching jobs are disappearing every day, and you still get a bunch of yahoos who want to get a teaching degree. And then there's poor Emma Firth, who has to drum up fine arts students. Her stretch goal might as well be double her actual goal, which might as well mean that she has to start two whole students."
"Sorry I'm late," whispered Victor Woo as he sprinted into the room. He stopped and looked suspiciously at me, and then cautiously took a seat next to Caroline. 'I evidently have taken his seat,' I figured, 'and he's not happy sitting next to Cruz. Tough! That's what he gets for being late.'
"Victor!" said Berrian sharply. "What's kept you?"
"Oh, a minor crisis at the Bursar's Office. A student called our office to complain about Brad Knight and there's no one over there, yet, except for me."
"Christ! Knight," grumbled Hank. "What the hell did he do this time?"
"Typical Brad. The student complained that she couldn't pay cash for her fall classes and Brad told her that people only used cash for cocaine and hookers."
Howard and Veronica laughed. I stifled a smile. No one else must have found it funny.
Excerpted from It's All Academic by David Fleming Copyright © 2010 by David Fleming. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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