"You seem to be coping well," he remarked, refilling my glass.
"I'm on my feet", I replied, which about summed it up. At my age, with 25 years of child-rearing behind me, animals to feed and coal to carry in for the Aga before I set off to help run the University of Warwick, you build up a reserve of stamina, like an old drayhorse. And stamina is what you need above all to be a pro-vice-chancellor.
How is the job different from any other university role?
Well, for a start, you suddenly find you have access to all sorts of things you never knew existed: committees that take decisions over how to spend millions of pounds, buildings that have mushroomed in places you remember as meadows, lunches where the gloves come off and people say the sort of things that need saying.
I spent a great deal of time in the first term observing the ritual exchanges, the gathering at the waterholes, the locking of horns, the mating displays and the treachery. Oh, the treachery of some people, who make Richard III look like an innocent! The first time I encountered the brutal reality of an overt, in-your-face lie, I was nonplussed. Such a nice man, I mused; I must be mistaken. When I realised just how naive I had been, I promptly marked him down as a lying bastard.
More paper is evident, tree-loads of it, day after day. I had a new filing cabinet delivered on day one, and will need another before June. It comes from the proliferation of committees, which spread like fungus.
You need stamina, too, because so many of the meetings are so unbelievably boring. I nodded off towards the end of term in an excruciating meeting, came round and found myself sitting in an awkward silence, with all eyes upon me. I swiftly shuffled my papers, gazed around sagely and remarked, "Well, colleagues, there is clearly a great deal to think about over this issue".
One of the oddest aspects of the new job is the amount of power that colleagues assume you have acquired overnight. In my first week I went into a meeting in someone's office, and everyone, including the women, stood up when I walked in. I was so nonplussed, I looked behind to see who was following me.
It hasn't been all roses, though. I lost the clothes war. I had asked for a clothing allowance. Not necessarily Armani, but something, surely, given the number of lunches with Tibetan diplomats, overweight junior ministers and business executives. Hmm, reflected the V-C, nobody has raised this issue before. Could be because one trip to Marks & Spencer sets the average male academic up for years, I thought, but I politely refrained from saying anything that might damage my chances. They sent the finance officer round, and he told me in his soft voice that such an allowance would be taxable. That is, of course, unless I was prepared to wear garments with a logo. So there I was, totally out-manoeuvred. I mean, how could anyone wear a cashmere sweater with University of Warwick emblazoned across their nipples?
A large part of my responsibility lies in quality control and academic policy. And since the endless round of assessment exercises goes on, when teams of academics trundle round one another's institutions, thumbing over the heaps of documentation like Victorian rag-pickers, a lot of my time is spent ensuring that everything is ship-shape. No, I can reassure Dr X, there is no need to scrub your office door before the TQA visit, but, on the other hand, it would be helpful if Dr Y didn't make his hatred of students quite so obvious; and if the manic depressive in room 303 could be sent on an early sabbatical, it might make all our lives easier.
In fact, I am in favour of the peer-assessment exercises in principle, because there were some very sloppy practices before all these inspections started, but what everyone knows and nobody says openly is that all the evaluation has helped some of the less talented teachers and scholars, particularly from backwoods institutions, to make an alternative career for themselves on the assessment teams.
And given that I don't believe for one second that a lecturer who has stuck at the top of the scale for 15 years in the new University of Upper Wormleighton is totally free of any sensation of envy when he examines the generous sabbatical leave provision and pleasant working conditions at places such as Warwick, it is hard to be confident about the effectiveness of the system overall.
So, on balance, what has it been like, this initial foray into a new part of the forest, as a lone female mingling with the boars? Not bad. In fact, you could say I've enjoyed it. But nobody can say it isn't damned hard work, reading briefing papers in bed at midnight, keeping your temper when patronised or ignored, dealing with the lunatic fringe (more than a fringe, in university life, more like the warp threads), maintaining your own academic career, and still having to fit in Sainsbury's and school concerts and mucking out the guinea-pigs and reading another chapter of Biggles at bedtime.
It takes stamina. Stamina and, of course, a few bottles of gin.
The writer is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick.Reuse content