At long last they reached the final item on the agenda, AOB.  As usual, the faculty meeting had been a rambling affair, inadequately chaired by Walter, the Professor of Psychology. 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to announce that the university have entered into an arrangement with a distinguished group of professional artists.’ 

Walter paused, as if expecting this news to be greeted with rapturous applause.  However, the members of the faculty sat impassively, seemingly unmoved, waiting for him to continue. 

Walter was a everyone’s caricature of a psychology professor.  He was a short, bald man, with thick spectacles and two front teeth that protruded over his bottom lip, making him look remarkably like a rabbit.  He was fond of cardigans, complete with leather elbow patches, which he often buttoned up with the two sides out of alignment.  He kept a pair of carpet slippers in his office and would put them on and shuffle around the department.  Even when spruced up for special occasions, such as formal university dinners and degree ceremonies, he was incapable of looking tidy: his gown would hang lopsidedly off one shoulder, his suit, a row of biros protruding from the top pocket, was ill-fitting, his tie was invariably skewwhiff, his Hush Puppies were scuffed and his socks rarely matched.

Undaunted, Walter continued.  ‘Original works of art are to be loaned to the university on a cyclical basis and each faculty is invited to join the scheme.  If we wish, every six months we can select a painting from those on offer.’

Nobody said anything and Walter added, somewhat lamely, ‘Participation in the scheme is entirely voluntary.’

The Head of Experimental Psychology, a serious man more at home with rats in mazes than works of art, continued to doodle on his pad and, without looking up, asked, ‘If we were to participate in the scheme, have you thought about where we would hang the painting?  Presumably the artist in question will offer guidance on what constitutes a suitable site?’

‘And,’ the Head of Statistics chipped in, ‘would we be liable for the safe keeping of the painting?  Suppose a disgruntled student damaged it?’

‘And,’ the Head of Psychometric Testing asked, ‘how will we agree which painting to select from those on offer?   With something so subjective, reaching a consensus will surely be tortuous.’ 

‘Yes,’ the Head of Ethics added, ‘we’ll certainly need to agree on a process of elimination.’

Walter, disappointed that the scheme hadn’t been enthusiastically embraced, and feeling wrongfooted by queries he hadn’t anticipated, suggested it might be best to postpone further discussion until the next meeting. 

He shuffled back to his office, gloomily reflecting on the cussedness of human beings.  Theoretically he valued diversity but in practice he found accommodating disparate views and steering people towards a consensus nothing short of a nightmare.  He always leant over backwards to avoid imposing his views or making decisions that could be construed as autocratic.  His strong preference was to act as an impartial sounding board, encouraging people to explore the pros and cons of various options, gently allowing a consensus to emerge.

The members of the faculty had a soft spot for Walter but they enjoyed playing devil’s advocate at the monthly meetings and watching him become increasingly discombobulated.  Most of them were indifferent to the invitation to select paintings, but welcomed it as an opportunity to have fun and watch Walter gradually lose his grip on the proceedings.     

In preparation for the next meeting, Walter, keen to find a way forward, sent each faculty member images of the first batch of six paintings on offer, inviting each of them to indicate their first, second and third choices.  He urged them to do this independently without conferring.  But when the results came in, Walter was dismayed to discover that no clear consensus had emerged: the choices were spread more or less evenly amongst the six paintings.

He wondered what to do for the best.  Perhaps he should just go ahead and choose his favourite painting?  But, as usual, he was wary of imposing his will.  Or might it be best quietly to take some individuals aside and prevail upon them to change their choices?  But that would amount to rigging the vote, leaving him open to accusations of corruption.  Perhaps he should drop the whole idea?  But how would he explain his change of heart to the Vice Chancellor, especially as he had been so effusive in welcoming the scheme?

He decided there was no alternative but to come clean, share the inconclusive data at the next meeting and invite suggestions on the best way forward.

Before the meeting, Walter felt strangely apprehensive.  He was worried that his usual democratic approach would result in more unruly behaviour.  It didn’t help that the night before the meeting he had experienced an unsettling dream: Edvard Munch’s painting of The Scream had been stolen whilst on loan to his department! 

The next day, poor Walter arrived looking even more dishevelled than usual.  Nervously, he broke the news about the impasse and invited suggestions on how best to proceed.  After an inconclusive discussion about whether to have a second round of voting with some form of proportional representation, the Head of Statistics, with no particular axe to grind, suggested that the task of selecting a painting should be delegated to a sub-committee.

Relieved to have found a potentially promising way forward, Walter asked for volunteers to serve on the sub-committee.  Hands shot up: everyone clamoured to join!  Walter, surveying the sea of hands, looked utterly crestfallen, his chin wobbling slightly beneath his buck teeth.  

There was an awkward silence. 

Eventually the Head of Ethics, an empathetic woman with adopted children, came to the rescue.  ‘Professor, in the circumstances, I think we should invite you to choose a painting and we should all agree to abide by your decision.’  

By now everyone had grown weary of the mischief-making and the proposition went through on the nod.

Walter slept well that night, secure in the knowledge that the decision to allow him to choose the painting had been reached democratically.  His faith in human nature had been restored.   

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