The chancellor’s new clothes

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Once upon a time there was a professor who aspired to be chancellor. Chancellor was a more powerful and prestigious position than professor and it was on the other side of the kingdom, so the professor flew out to be vetted by the executive search committee. That night the head of search took him out for dinner and clapped him on the back. He was almost there.

The next day was the regents committee. The regents sat in a conference room, all facing the professor, who wore narrow glasses. His white hair stood out like Einstein.

“Are there any skeletons in the closet?” the head regent said.

“Not that I can think of.”

“Criminal record? Affairs with students? Nazi memorabilia? Anger issues? Substance abuse?”

As the regent went down the list the professor said No over and over again.

“Eccentricities we should know about? Gun collection. Internet chatrooms. Weird Facebook photographs?”

“Sorry. No.”

“We don’t want any surprises. An institutionalization. A harassment complaint. An unsavory cause?” 

The professor glanced out at a redwood tree in the courtyard. “Unsavory cause?”

“Oh– anything that might stand out. A death row case. Police brutality. Anything left of global warming.”

The professor sighed. “Well I did sign a petition once. For divestment from military contractors to Israel. Just for military contractors, mind you. Not all things Israel.”

Two regents glanced at one another meaningfully as the head regent pressed the professor for details. It was long ago. Ten years back. The professor’s wife had signed the petition too.

The atmosphere in the room had changed. Instead of the meeting being a headlong flight across a grassy sunlit field to a waiting lover, it suddenly felt as if they were all in gumboots and up to their ankles in a swamp.

The professor felt sweat trickling down his ribs. “It was nothing, nothing,” he said in a slight panic. “They stick the clipboard at you like a gun. There was all this peer pressure and correctness. Highly polarized. They made you out to be a collaborationist if you didn’t sign.”

The head regent grimaced and sat back, and the professor gave a soft cry and buried his head in his hands.

“Please give us ten minutes,” the head regent said.

The professor paced the hallway like a prisoner. The weightless Italian suit he’d purchased for the sessions now wore dark sweat stains, and his hair hung limply over his forehead.

Then the door opened, and the big regent stuck his head out. ”I think we’ve got it.”

He was smiling, and the professor threw himself into the regent’s arms.

The investiture of the chancellor took place on a beautiful June day. This was a dignified and solemn affair; and only the most important people in the kingdom were invited. Two hundred of them crammed the chancellor’s hall, a Greek revival structure with a broad central staircase. There were famous politicians, regents, hedge fund managers, provosts, portfolio advisers, chaired professors, and big alumni donors– and all their wives and husbands. On the balcony a chamber orchestra played Bach, and waiters in black tie circulated with glasses of champagne.

From outside could be heard the muffled shouts of demonstrators. But there were always demonstrations in the kingdom, and no one paid them any mind.

At the stroke of 5, the oak doors at the top of the stairs opened and the chancellor and his wife stepped out toward the waiting dignitaries. At first the group of VIPs were taken aback by what the two were wearing, and indeed a brief gasp went through the room.

For the chancellor and his wife were both naked except for Israeli flags. The chancellor’s was knotted around his hips. Hers was tied pareo-style just below her armpits.

But the gasp was brief. These were people who knew how to stand on ceremony! And soon the dignitaries recovered and laughed and chattered meaninglessly.

“Oh it’s Hermes,” said one donor’s wife.

“No it’s Prada. I saw Miuccia in Milan. She was talking about this line.”

“See how the blue of his suit sets off his eyes,” said the head regent.

“I have a dozen like that, I should have worn it,” a hedgefund manager said to his wife.

“Where can I buy one of those?” called out a senator.

The chancellor and his wife beamed, and the flags swirled about their hips as they stepped barefoot down to the entryway and lifted champagne glasses from a tray.

And only then did a little girl at the back of room tug at her father’s sleeve– her father had a chair in anthropology– and say, “Daddy, that’s the flag of Israel!”

The father swung his child behind him with a wrench of the little girl’s arm, and clapped a hand over her mouth, before whisking her out the front door, and the event went on without a hitch, and the chancellor and his wife greeted all their wonderful new company, and all was well in the kingdom. 

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