Walter was a professor of psychology at a red-brick university.  In many ways he fitted the stereotype of a psychology professor; he was a short, cuddly man, with thick spectacles and two front teeth that protruded over his bottom lip, making him look remarkably like a rabbit.  He always wore a cardigan, complete with leather elbow patches, which he frequently buttoned up so that the two sides were out of alignment.  He kept a pair of carpet slippers in his office and, when the weather was cold and wet, he would put them on and shuffle around the department looking as if he should be wearing pyjamas to match.  Even when he put his slippers aside and dressed up for a special occasion, he managed to look scruffy.  His tie would sag, his Hush Puppies would be scuffed, his braces would show and, invariably, a label would be sticking out at the back of his neck.

Walter’s office was similarly untidy.  On his desk sat a phrenological china bust overseeing a mass of dishevelled papers (incongruously, over the left eye, there was a little segment marked ‘order’).  The drawers of his filing cabinet were overflowing.  The floor beside the bookcase was littered with stacks of books.  There were strange bits of apparatus left over from various laboratory experiments – cardboard shapes painted in different colours, bells rigged up with wires attached to batteries, headphones and loudspeakers.  Walter was a wood carver in his spare time, so various wooden bowls and animals also graced the scene.

As you might have gathered, Walter was a disorganised man.  However, he was very kindly, generous with his time for staff and students. If someone came to him with a query or a problem, he would sit them down (after moving whatever was on the chair!) and, unhurriedly, talk through all the issues.  He was extraordinarily circumlocutory because he subscribed to the non-directive school of thought.  He firmly believed that his role was to act as a sounding board and allow his colleagues to reach their own decisions, in their own time.  This meant that the faculty meetings he chaired were rambling, inconclusive affairs, taking far more time than was necessary.

One day Walter told the meeting that the university was to enter into an arrangement with the city’s art gallery whereby paintings would be loaned to the university for a period of time.  Each department could join the scheme and have up to three paintings on loan for a six-month period.  They would then be rotated and replaced with another three paintings, and so on for as long as the arrangement stood.

Walter liked the idea but, of course, refrained from saying so openly and waited for a consensus to emerge.  Members of the faculty fell into two camps; those with an interest in art who were keen, and those with no interest in art who couldn’t care less.  Eventually, it was decided there was no harm in going ahead and Walter conveyed the decision to the University’s Vice Chancellor.

At the next meeting, Walter produced a catalogue showing the twelve paintings that were on offer and suggested that they should use a democratic process to choose the three that would hang in the department.  A long discussion ensued about how this could best be done.  The group that were not interested saw this as an opportunity to have fun and use spoiling tactics.  In the end, it was decided to circulate the catalogue so that everyone could make their individual choices, returning it to Walter in time for him to announce the result at the next faculty meeting.

When the catalogue came back, marked with everyone’s choices, Walter was dismayed to see that the votes were distributed more or less evenly and that no clear consensus had emerged.  He wondered what to do for the best.  Perhaps he should just go ahead and choose the three paintings himself?  But it was against his principles to ignore the vote and ride roughshod over the opinions of his colleagues. Perhaps he should quietly take some individuals aside and persuade them to change their votes?  But that amounted to rigging the vote and leaving him open to accusations of unfairness.  Perhaps he should drop the whole idea?  But how would he explain the change of heart to the Vice Chancellor?  He decided that he’d have to share the news that the voting had been inconclusive at the next meeting and seek views on the best way ahead.

Before the meeting, Walter felt strangely apprehensive. He normally took such problems in his stride, happy to let them resolve themselves and trusting that democracy would find a way, but this time he was in the grip of cognitive dissonance.  On the eve of the meeting, Walter had a particularly restless night with a vivid dream about The Scream being 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 asked for ideas on how best to proceed.  After some discussion about whether to have a second round of voting with some form of proportional representation, one of the lecturers put forward a novel idea.  She suggested that the task of deciding on the three paintings should be delegated to a sub-committee. This led to a discussion about the ideal number for a sub-committee. Eventually, it was decided that three would suffice – one for each painting.  However, when Walter asked for volunteers, everyone clamoured to join.  The people who didn’t care were playing games again.

After a while, the lecturer who had suggested the sub-committee (she was in favour of having paintings) said, ‘Professor, in the circumstances, I think that you should make the decision and we should all agree to abide by it.’  By now everyone, even the mischief-makers, were growing tired of the discussion and the prevaricating, so the idea went through on the nod.

Walter chose the paintings happy in the knowledge that the decision to let him do so had been reached democratically.  He reflected that, although it had all been rather tortuous, democracy had triumphed yet again. Consonance was restored.

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