ECONOMICS DEPARTMENT TO CELEBRATE GRAND REOPENING OF WILLARD HALL
—by Madelyn Rao
The Campus Scribe (September 3, 2010): Payne University’s economists will soon be toasting the completion of a yearlong renovation of Willard Hall, celebrating with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and reception hosted by Econ Department chair Roland R. Gladwell.
“It was a long and difficult year,” said Professor Gladwell, reached in his spacious new office. “The second floor of the building was gutted, and we had to beg a year’s lodging from our friends in Geology. But you can see that the result is well worth it.” The Economics Department’s portion of Willard Hall now includes state-of-the-art technology-enhanced classrooms, a fully equipped computer lab, elegant seminar and meeting rooms, faculty offices, and a café.
Stunning mosaic tile floors and skylights were underwritten by the Morse Foundation; digital LCD wall displays were donated by philanthropist-alum Bill Fixx.
Asked to comment on the nearly-completed project, University President Nyla Hoffman praised Payne’s corporate and private donors and said she looks forward “to a renewed era of growth for the Department of Economics, a jewel in the crown here at Payne.”
Willard Hall is also home to the Department of English, which occupies the lower floor.
On the first – unrenovated – floor of Willard Hall, Jason T. Fitger, recently elected chair of the Department of English, stuffed his copy of the Campus Scribe into the shredder. He had recently returned from a visit to Econ’s portion of the building, where he had been mistaken by one of the clerical staff for a vagrant or tourist – another gawker come to admire the hot-and-cold water fountains and Orwellian flat-screens, the espresso bar, and the sunshine filtering gracefully through the skylights and casting itself in subtle patterns on the tile floor. Descending the stairs again to English, he left behind a silent, air-conditioned Erewhon and re-entered the grim and steamy underworld that served as heart and soul, at Payne, of the liberal arts.
Muttering, Fitger flipped the switch on the shredder. Nothing. His office – the entire administrative “suite” or department headquarters – was barbarically hot, and he had just spent forty minutes duct-taping a rusted, squeaking fan in his window and tracking down a series of extension cords (the outlets in his office were only sporadically working) which, end-to-end, snaked their way to a distant receptacle in the hall. He’d had to prop his window open with a dictionary and several rolls of toilet paper: due to two broken sash cords, it functioned more or less as a guillotine.
Careful not to yank the fan from his window, Fitger crawled under his desk to fiddle with the plug on the shredder. The semester – including his own freshman class on “The Literature of Apocalypse” – would begin in four days. Sweat cascading down the neck of his shirt, he reminded himself that there were benefits to being head of the department: his new office did not abut the men’s room; his teaching duties consisted of two classes per year instead of five; and he had been granted permission to select from a glossy catalog an ergonomic chair that, should the photo turn out to be accurate, would not be criss-crossed with electrical tape that adhered to his pants. Still, these perks were a handful of penny candy sprinkled over a minefield: English, one of the most ungovernable academic units at Payne, had a reputation for discord and dysfunction going back forty years. Fitger’s predecessor, Ted Boti, recruited during a moment of administrative despair from the Sociology Department, had abandoned his post after only nine months, racing out of the office as if his head were on fire. He had bequeathed to Fitger a scrim of dead insects on the desk, a defunct computer, and a file cabinet containing a Sudoku puzzle book, eleven pencil stubs, and a tube of psoriasis cream.
Fitger’s ex-wife, Janet, comfortably employed by the plutocrats in the Payne University law school, had warned him against beginning the academic year in a futilitarian mood: that is, in her words, could he try not to be such a fatalistic ass? English was, she pointed out, in an enviable nowhere-but-up situation. True, Fitger probably lacked the respect and goodwill of the Payne campus (as a novelist, not a scholar, he was generally regarded as a member of a subordinate species), but he was the chair, for god’s sake; the ship might be ugly and battered, but he stood at its helm – his colleagues, unwilling to serve as chair themselves, having held their breath, plugged their noses, and voted him in.
Now, deep in uncharted territory under the desk, Fitger came face to face with several fossilized apple cores and the remains of what appeared to be a cheddar cheese sandwich. He flicked them away. English might not thrive under his watch, but he would take up the pen and the sword to defend it. Among the department’s immediate needs were two tenure-track faculty hires, funding for the (defunct) literary journal, an increase in student fellowships, and the reinstatement of the (recently eliminated) creative writing degree. The complication: most if not all of these housekeeping improvements required approval from administration – in the personage of, among others, Philip Hinckler, the dean. Janet, for the past six months, had been sleeping with Hinckler. Was their relationship serious? Fitger had put this question to his ex-wife one evening in August, after the two of them (Fitger and Janet), perhaps not thinking clearly, had ended up in his bed. Janet hadn’t reacted well to his question. Jamming the shredder’s twisted, irregular plug into the extension cord, he tried not to think about his ex-wife boinking the dean.
“I hope you’re not trying to use that shredder.” The office adjoining Fitger’s – the two small spaces divided by a sheet of unpainted wallboard into which, inexplicably, someone had fixed a plexiglass window – was occupied by his administrative assistant, Frances Ignatieff, aka Fran.
“What?” The shredder rattled noisily to life. Inch by inch, Fitger fed it the Scribe. He was on his knees, smacking the neck of the machine to speed things along. The shredder paused, coughed, set its own dials to reverse, and vomited ribbons of half-digested paper all over the rug.
“Un-f*cking-believable,” Fitger said.
“I can’t hear you,” said Fran.
A Frisbee thwocked against the window. Clutching the edge of his desk, Fitger stood up, shreds of newspaper drifting across his shoes in the sluggish breeze from the fan. What was it about Frisbee, he wondered, that undergraduates never tired of or outgrew? Year after year, chipper and shirtless on the quad, they hurled a plastic disk back and forth while the planet hurtled toward its fiery end.
Stuffing the mangled remainder of the paper – with its smiling photo of Economics chair Roland Gladwell – into the trash, Fitger torqued his shoulders left and right, his vertebrae sounding off like a marimba. He peered through the plexiglass window into Fran’s office. Support staff at Payne, he had found, tended toward eccentricity as well as recalcitrance; Frances Ignatieff scored high on both counts. She was a short, gnomelike person whose preference for baggy sleeveless dresses gave her the appearance of a sack of flour with legs. Her shower sandals – Fitger didn’t want to dictate office fashion, but there was something draggle-tail, he thought, about rubber footwear – revealed ten oddly shaped and prehensile toes. Having been on her own in the office for most of the summer, Fran seemed to consider the newly elected Fitger, though he was her boss, an annoying impediment to her work – whatever that was.
He tapped at the window between their two offices. Fran sighed. New department heads were as helpless as infants. Fran had been at Payne for eighteen years and had broken in four of them, having been shuffled as if across a battered checkerboard from one hapless department to another, drilling these supposed intellectual giants in their ABCs. She had strenuously resisted the relocation to English – everyone at Payne had heard the stories – but as a reward for grooming Fiamatu, the woolgathering leader of Studio Art, she had been appointed assistant to the university’s number-one loudmouth and notorious crank.
He knocked again. It was eleven-fifteen; Fran had a to-do list a mile long. She had been hoping to take an early lunch in order to go home and check on Gloria, a cockatiel (Fran was a member of an animal-rehab cooperative), and here was that idiot’s face in her window. He had spent most of the morning pacing back and forth in his office, fiddling with extension cords and turning the light switch on and off, without even glancing at the documents she had put in his in-box. He probably had ADD; a lot of chairs did. They started the year with a missionary’s zealous drive, but soon turned bitter and disillusioned. The bunion on Fran’s left foot had lit up like a fuse.
With the air of a person climbing out of a manhole, she pushed herself up from her chair and trudged around the divider to Fitger’s portion of the office. And there he was, resembling a toddler left alone, standing bewildered in a mess of his own creation and looking to Fran to put it to rights.
“I told you not to use the shredder,” she said. “It doesn’t work.”
“I don’t remember you telling me anything about the shredder. And why is it here in my office if it doesn’t work?”
Why, why, why, Fran thought. Why was not the right question. At Payne, the only question that could reasonably be answered was what. What was that in the corner of the chair’s office? A broken shredder. Why was it broken? The second question had no response. It was simply broken; many things were; it had not been fixed. At forty-four, Fran felt too old to be revealing to yet another budding leader the secret handshakes and koans that served as policy at Payne. She had never intended to work at a university, which everyone knew was full of misfits with badly swelled heads. Her dream – impractical but not yet abandoned – was to become an animal behavior consultant, which most people didn’t think was a real job, but of course it was. Fran already possessed many of the requisite skills, having fostered cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and voles, but she lacked the degree. “There’s nowhere else to put it,” she said.
“What about the trash can?” Fitger asked.
“It’s not going to fit. And the trash collectors don’t accept machinery.”
“How about the hallway?”
“Blocking the hall is a fire hazard.”
Fitger stirred the gray confetti on the floor. “Do we own a vacuum?”
Did. They. Own. A. Vacuum. Fran tugged at the door of the supply closet – marked very clearly with a sign that said SUPPLIES – and dragged from within it the gray Electrolux tank that appeared to have been manufactured during World War II. She parked it next to the plastic bucket full of cleaning products that she had already set near the door to Fitger’s office, (re)explaining – because in her experience department chairs were slow to absorb information – that custodians were responsible only for the building’s bathrooms and public spaces. If Fitger wanted his office cleaned, he would have to tackle the shredder debris and any other detritus himself.
Eleven-twenty. Gloria would be waiting in her cage in the kitchen, her pretty tricorner feet nimbly gripping the perch. Fran tried not to get too attached to the animals she fostered, but Gloria (considered hard-to-adopt; she was a biter) had already lived in a cage in Fran’s kitchen for almost a month. And she was such a smart bird, with a truly fun-loving personality. Sometimes she liked to stand on one foot, like a drunk about to fail a sobriety test. Her previous owner had given her up because “owning a bird was too much work.” People were assholes, Fran thought. She had spent the past few days teaching Gloria to whistle the tune to “Three Blind Mice.”
“Is there anything else you need?” she asked.
Fitger stared at the vacuum, its cylindrical hose like an elephant’s trunk. “Yes.” He wanted to know if she’d heard from Tech-Help yet, about a replacement for his computer.
Fran took a deep breath. She had explained the computer issue already. “We can’t order a new one until they send someone to diagnose the old one. If they decide the old one is definitely broken, they’ll send an email to central. Then you can fill out an online request for a new computer.”
“You’re saying I should submit an on-line request via a computer that’s no longer working.”
Fran looked at the behemoth on Fitger’s desk; it must have been twenty years old and probably weighed 300 pounds. “I wonder if somebody pulled a switch on you,” she said. “That’s not the computer that was here last summer. You should have brought the computer from your faculty office when you moved in here.”
“I tried to,” Fitger said. “But about ten minutes after I became chair someone changed the lock on my office and loaned it out to that visiting Norwegian.”
“I thought he was Swedish,” Fran said.
Fitger shrugged. Arnljot Johansen, a skeletal man with a shock of white hair and
elongated limbs so fragile he seemed almost transparent, was a visiting interdisciplinary scholar; no one seemed to know anything about his field. The contents of Fitger’s desk and file drawers had been moved into storage.
“Anyway,” Fran said. “Until your computer is up and working, I’ll be keeping your calendar. What’s your password on P-Cal?”
“I don’t use P-Cal.”
Fran stared. Everyone at Payne used the university’s calendar and scheduling system. How would he keep track of his appointments? In a paper logbook?
Fitger pointed to the paper logbook on his desk.
“That’s not going to work,” Fran said. “All the other chairs and the entire administration run on P-Cal. You might as well move your office into a cave.”
"I’m going to keep a paper calendar,” Fitger said. He watched Fran's face assume a Procrustean look. “I will be making use of a computer, however, so I would appreciate it if you would put in a second request to Tech-Help.”
And so it begins, Fran thought. In the early days of each of her administrative postings at Payne, there came a moment when she was forced to draw a line in the sand. Fiamatu had once brought his five-year-old twins to the office (they had probably been expelled from kindergarten) and hinted that Fran might like to entertain them. And What-
Was-Her-Face, in Anthropology, had floated the idea that Fran might work on occasional (unpaid) weekends from home. Now here was Fitger, effectively canceling her lunch hour, a period of time during which Gloria – probably at that very moment cocking her head and listening for the sound of Fran’s key in the lock – might as well starve to death in her cage. It was no way to treat a foster bird.
“I gave you the Tech-Help number,” she said, careful to look him in the eye. “It’s on a yellow sticky note, right there on your desk.”
Fitger tipped back his head and regarded her through a pair of filthy black plastic readers. The floor and the desk in his office were covered with paper, the in-box stacked about nine inches high. His shirt had an ink stain on the pocket, like a navy blue nipple, and was otherwise near-translucent with sweat. “Ordinarily,” he said, “I would be delighted to initiate a search for that sticky note and then dial the Tech-Help number myself. But – perhaps this will come as a surprise to you, but I’m not sure that it should – my phone isn’t working.”