Sunday, June 21, 2009

A tale of two offices

A far, far better office

Professor Porfirio Gigante was preparing to throw his weight around. He carried a lot of it, both figuratively and literally.

“Professor Gigante? The president will see you now.”

The professor and the president had a lot of history together, going back to an earlier era when she had been his faculty colleague. He would now carefully explain to her the circumstances that had prompted him to seek a special audience with her. If all went well, Gigante would manage to salvage his master plan, which had unfortunately begun to unravel.

The math department was in the midst of a hiring process to fill a vacancy created by a retirement. Gigante had volunteered to serve on the hiring committee the moment he discovered that one of his former students was applying for the position. He would move heaven and earth to ensure the appointment of his protégé. Gigante's advocacy had carried his fair-haired boy through the screening process and put him on the interview list, but the interviews had not gone according to Gigante's scenario. His candidate's flaccid teaching demonstration threatened to knock him out of contention and prevent him from getting to the final round.

The committee members were not supposed to discuss the candidates among themselves except in closed session and not until the end of the interviews. Nevertheless, Gigante had quickly picked up on the committee's favorites among the candidates and he knew that his protégé was not among them. He would vote strategically in the final ranking vote, awarding first place to his favorite and deliberately offsetting the popular choices by ranking them last. But as the committee recessed for a much-needed break, he feared his machinations would not suffice.

Thus Gigante's quick secret mission to the president's office.

The hiring committee had reassembled after its afternoon break to make its final recommendations to the president. The faculty members were all in place except for Gigante, the senior member of the math department, but he finally bustled in, a small smile on his face. A few minutes later, the dean of instruction arrived and took his position as chair of the committee. The dean had an odd expression on his face.

“Okay,” said the dean. “Let's get down to work.” Long pause. “First of all, I have an announcement. The president has requested that we send her five names.”

The committee members exchanged quizzical glances. They looked to their senior member to ask the obvious question on their behalf, but Gigante seemed surprisingly unperturbed by the announcement and remained silent. While they were sorting out the order of precedence, one of the brash newbies blurted out the obvious question.

“I thought we were supposed to give the president three names. Why the change?”

“Yes, Zeno, I asked her about that. It's the president's prerogative to interview more than three finalists if she chooses,” answered the dean.

The faculty members shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They had taken seriously the opportunity to winnow the candidates down to their three favorites, after which the president would interview the finalists and choose one. If she intended to interview as many candidates as she wanted, she could in effect dramatically diminish the committee's role in choosing a new colleague. Gigante poured some oil on the troubled waters:

“We need to recall,” he said unctuously, “that five is the number of candidates the president customarily interviews if she is considering the appointment of two faculty members.”

People sat bolt upright in their seats.

“Two?! But the department has only one vacancy!”

As committee chair, the dean tried to get everyone back on track:

“Porfirio is right, of course. The request for five names suggests that the president is considering the appointment of two math professors from this pool. In light of that, I need to verify that the committee agrees that it can find five qualified candidates from the applicant pool to recommend to the president for her consideration.”

The dean was greeted with a babble of assents. It was, indeed, a strong applicant pool. Some committee members had grown uncomfortable with Gigante's obvious favoritism toward his former student and had been worrying that Gigante would erupt in dismay if his favorite was eliminated. Now people were glancing suspiciously in his direction. If there were going to be two slots, Gigante's constant ranking of his protégé as #1 would almost certainly push him into the final round of interviews with the president.

When the balloting was over that afternoon, and five names had been selected to forward to the president, Gigante was quite satisfied with his day's work.

Two weeks later the dean of the math department sat at her desk, pondering the memo that an administrative assistant had just hand-delivered from the president's office. Gigante's fair-haired boy and one of the hiring committee's favorites would be joining her staff. She moved to the door of her office and called down the corridor:

“Zeno, I need to talk to you. Get in here.”

After a few seconds, a reply came back down the hallway:

“I'll be right there, boss.”

The dean returned to her desk and awaited the faculty member's arrival.

“Close the door behind you, Zee. And congratulations.”


“Yes, congratulations. You've been bumped up two notches on the departmental seniority list.”

“Whoa! So it really happened? The president appointed two new math profs?”

“That's right. I'll be issuing a notice to the entire department later today. In the meantime, though, I have some things to figure out. I need to construct a second full-time schedule for fall for an unanticipated new hire and I need to find a place to house that person, too. Zeno, do you still have that information list that you compiled the last time we did office assignments?”

“Sure. Give me a few minutes and I'll dig it out from my files. I have copies of the original architect's plat of the building and the square footage of each office. And I corrected the numbers by actual measurement of some of the offices that turned out not to be built quite to spec.”

“Good. That'll be handy. Once again it's going to be useful to have an obsessive-compulsive on staff.”

“I think you'll find there's more than one of us here in the math department, boss. But how are you going to use the information?”

“You can probably answer that for yourself, Zeno. The president has given me an extra math professor but she isn't giving me any extra office space to accommodate him. One of our single offices is going to have to become a double. The only reasonable way to do that is to identify the biggest single and convert it.”

Several contemplative seconds passed in silence.

“Uh, boss? There really isn't any question about it, is there? The biggest single office is obviously the one occupied by the senior faculty member. Porf glommed on to the biggest office ages ago and has occupied it since time immemorial. Way before I ever arrived here.”

“Way before I ever got here either,” said the dean. “But I need the square-footage numbers to wave in his face. Prying him out of there is going to take all the leverage I can get.”

Later that day the dean informed Porfirio Gigante that he was moving into the small single about to be vacated by his retiring colleague. Gigante's office would become a double accommodating the two junior faculty members arriving in the fall.

Within minutes Porfirio was again in the college president's office.

“She can't do that to me!” he complained to the president.

“Oh, Porf! You know better than that!” said the president. “Just as I have the right to appoint faculty members, the department dean has the right to allocate office space as she sees fit. Oh, and congratulations on your new colleagues.”


Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Shoulda made him share his office with his new boy.

Not fair on the kid, though.

Karen said...

At the school I attend, all the faculty offices were designed (snicker) for two occupants, with an adjoining lab to be shared between two offices. This allots approximately one and one-half postage stamps' worth of space to each faculty member. In practice, most faculty have their own office, and share 2 to a "lab"; the labs are places to set up computers and store literature.

Oddly enough, the two most senior faculty members share an office. They moved in together as very junior faculty, and never saw a need to perturb the arrangement. It helps greatly that they're both compulsive neatniks. They manage a vast sea of literature between them, and every bit of it is always in place unless being used. I think even Zeno might be impressed.

Karen said...

How does the president pull the money out of nowhere for two hires instead of one?

Zeno said...

In those days the president had more access to discretionary funds she could move around on her own authority. In this case, I'm certain she needed to find only the amount of money necessary to bridge the gap between a full-time professor's salary and the aggregate wages of the part-timers who lost their classes to the new full-timer. Furthermore, she needed cover the difference for only one year, until the next retirement occurred, at which point the "extra" faculty member was no longer above the department's faculty allocation.

João said...

Hahahahaha. Great story Zeno. I can almost imagine the face of Porfirio talking to the President.

The Ridger, FCD said...

the aggregate wages of the part-timers who lost their classes to the new full-timer

The ones no one ever thinks about...

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for quite a while now and enjoy it very much. As one might expect from a mathematician, you have an eye (and memory) for detail and the ability to accurately describe the topography of your world.