The Dean of the Academy of Sophists has a problem. Her department is about to be run off campus—literally. The proposed new site seems nice enough, albeit built on a former graveyard, but it forms a sort of exile across town from the main campus. The university VP seems all too willing to create this boundary, after budding Sophist Mary Lou and her affirmation-driven low-emission propellant experiment has gone awry, disrupting graduation ceremonies and delivering another blow to the Sophists’ sketchy reputation. The battle lines have been drawn: Sophists vs. the world. But are the Sophists on the brink of discovering green energy independence? Jennifer Craig delivers a spicy opening to this tongue-in-cheek campus send-up that promises to poke fun at the droll politics and dusty corners of academia, with a measure of witchcraft thrown in. Hopefully a few politically correct apple carts will be overturned in a funny, humorous way.
The Protector’s headline, STUDENT SOPHIST FLIES OFF HER HANDLE, met the Dean’s eye the moment she sat at her desk.
A second-year student in Sophistry at the Arthur Gnu University crashed her low-emission propellant right into the graduation procession on Friday, toppling the chancellor and causing a dent in the ceremonial copper orb. Sophists have designed a unique form of transportation that they hope will eventually become public but that, at present, can only be used by Sophists as they are the only ones who can incant the necessary affirmation.
The student, Mary Lou, was unhurt but apologetic. “My affirmations aren’t strong enough,” she said. “I can’t focus properly.”
Contemporary Sophistry, with a long tradition rooted in ancient Greek culture, and as taught in the Academy, contributes greatly to the whole of humankind, a spokesperson said. Its practices are similar to witchcraft but are rooted in science. Witchcraft broke away from Sophistry in the fifteenth century to form its own sect, and bases its practices on artifice.
The Dean closed her eyes and groaned. “Great Logos, who leaked this?”
A knock on her door announced Henrietta, who marched in waving the newspaper. “Have you seen this?” she demanded.
“Someone, probably Herman, made sure I did,” the Dean said.
Henrietta gathered her hole-ridden black gown around her and flung herself onto the chair opposite the desk. “We really have to do something about Mary Lou. She’s a disaster. This sort of thing can’t go on. Why was she ever promoted into second year?”
The Dean leaned back. “She scraped through the exams, that’s why. And,” she raised her eyes upwards, “her family has been generous in their endowments. Not only that, her family is well known in the heterodoxic world. We can’t expel their daughter.”
Henrietta, a full professor and confidante, stared at her friend. “Can’t we persuade her to take up another career? You know her heart isn’t in Sophistry.”
“I’m more concerned about who contacted the press.” The Dean leaned forward to rest her elbows on the desk. “I suspect it was Administration in yet another move to get rid of us. In fact, I’ve been summoned to the Vice-President’s office at,” she glanced at her watch, “ten.” She stood up. “I better go. But I’ll put Mary Lou on the agenda for our next faculty meeting. Maybe someone will come up with a solution.”
The Vice-President, to whom the Dean of the Academy of Sophists was responsible, had only been in the university for a few months. She had disliked him on sight; his grey flannels, white shirt, striped tie, navy blazer, polished black laced shoes, and his air of confidence made her want to reach for her talisperson. She had managed, so far, to refrain.
From his first day in office he had made it clear he had no time for Sophists, despite the Dean’s attempts to explain their history and curriculum, and why her school belonged in a university. As soon as the Dean tried to clarify the practice of Sophistry to him, he would roll his eyes and tell her she and her faculty belonged in a coven, not in a university.
He was sitting at his over-large desk when she arrived, but stood up and waved The Protector at her. “This will not do. We can’t have the whole world knowing this university pays teachers to promote such nonsense.”
“The general public is very interested in low-emission propellants. The reduction in greenhouse gases is a major goal,” the Dean said calmly. “Of course, in the development phase there are bound to be setbacks. Anyone with any sense can see that.”
He sat down again but she moved to one side of him and continued to stand so that he had to twist his neck to look up at her.
“You are always very proud of the research funds you bring in,” he began. “Could you give me one example of research undertaken by your school last year that has contributed to the welfare of the community?”
“Yes, if you will do the same for the School of Social Work.” The Dean’s eyes narrowed as she moved round the desk to face him. “I have sent you papers that explain what Sophistry is and how we practice it. I am not here to waste my time repeating myself. My student’s mistake was unfortunate, but so was the medical student who sewed up that woman’s rectum along with the perineum after childbirth.”
The VP’s face blanched. “How did you know about that?”
The Dean gave him her most malicious smile. “When is the court case coming up?”
“Yes, well, accidents do happen when students are learning.” The VP’s tone was less combative.
“Exactly,” the Dean said.
The VP leaned back to look up at the still-standing Dean. “Won’t you sit down?”
The Dean pulled up a chair and sat to face him across his desk. Her dark eyes gleamed as she prepared for the expected battle.
“I didn’t ask you here to discuss your, er, aerobatic student, but to inform you that the annexes are to be demolished.”
The annexes were six ancient wooden huts, similar to army barracks, known as Annexes A through F, scattered across the campus and allocated to the schools least favoured by the Administration. Of these, four were used by the Academy of Sophistry, one by Psychology’s overspill, and one by the Institute for Semiotic Studies.
“As you know, they are long past their best before date and now there’s a question of safety.” The VP stopped and stared inquiringly at the Dean.
“Yes,” she said, “do go on.”
“The problem is,” he said with a slow nod, “that we are not sure where we can house you.”
So that’s it, the Dean thought. They want to get rid of us by removing our space, such as it is. Her regular requests for a new building or at least a floor in a new building had always been met with promises but no action. She waited for what he would say next.
“Yes, space is a major problem. There are many competing demands as student enrolment increases and facilities cannot meet the demands placed upon them.”
The Dean’s silence seemed to unsettle him. He wriggled uncomfortably before saying, “The only space we can come up with for you is at Graves.”
The Dean simply stared at him. Graves was a satellite building miles from the main university that was used for post-graduate studies, Continuing Education, summer schools, and other programs not requiring university resources. It had been built on a former graveyard and although the bodies had been moved to consecrated ground elsewhere, it was still known as ‘Graves.’
“Yes. Graves has modern classrooms and offices and should suit you very well,” the VP babbled.
“Out of the question,” the Dean said.
After a silence, the VP fiddled with his paper knife and said, “Why? You have always complained about how scattered you are and at Graves you would all be together.”
“What about our lab?”
The Academy of Sophistry had a decent laboratory; not thanks to the university but to a thaumaturgist who had donated it on behalf of his daughter who had been left speaking only Zulu due to an unfortunate error in an experiment she conducted as part of her doctoral thesis. Despite intensive efforts by several language experts and the interventions of many senior Sophists, she could not learn another language. As the university demanded a dissertation written in English, she was only allowed to graduate because the Dean had persuaded the committee to accept a translation. The student had moved to Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, and her father, in gratitude for his daughter’s graduation, had funded a laboratory.
“Yes, that is a problem,” the VP acknowledged. “But your propellants do allow your students rapid transportation.”
“You expect my students to cross the city every time they want to use the lab?” The Dean lips tightened. “Out of the question.” She stood up to leave. “Think again.”
The VP stood too. “I will try to delay the demolition until a better solution is found, but I can’t offer much hope. You must be prepared to move at the end of this academic year.”
He stood as if his desk was a protective shield and the Dean realised he was frightened of her. So he should be, she thought. She rubbed her talisperson and focused on his crotch. I hope he goes all day with his fly open before he finds his broken zipper, she thought as she marched out of his office.
One of the Dean’s habits, and one she had tried to quell in her youth, was to mutter out loud. Anyone who knew her well and who saw her striding, black gown swinging, head down muttering, would hastily retreat, so after her meeting with the VP, she met no one.
“That perennial idiot, that supreme prick, that homo non-erectus. May the fleas of a thousand warthogs infest his pubes. If I don’t do something about him he’s going to spoil my chances of ending my career in glory by getting on the Great Sophist Council. I must make sure nothing goes wrong and the school flourishes this year.”