“I did everything right as a college administrator, so how did I end up in that Panamanian prison cell?”

That phrase had been swirling around Robert Berne’s head for 10 years when he served as executive vice president for health at New York University. This sparked his desire to try his hand at fiction and, after his retirement in 2017, it became the opening line of his first novel, tuscan son (Moonshine Cove Publishing, 2022).

Bern, who worked at NYU for 41 years, including 15 as vice president, said Inside Higher Education that the novel was inspired by his time as an administrator. Although he has never been to prison, he and his protagonist have a lot of other things in common: both have served as vice-presidents of private universities in Manhattan, both have spent time in Italy negotiating with the disgruntled children of deceased donors over a large gift of property and both have a lot to say about the politics and bureaucracy of higher education administration.

“My goal was to tell interesting things about college life, but I decided I didn’t want to write a non-fiction memoir and I didn’t want to write ‘The Seven Things I Learned as a College Administrator “, because I’ve never read those things,” Berne said. “So I thought turning it into a novel was the best way to do it.”

The novel follows Bill, the senior vice president for academic initiatives at the fictional Olmstead University — Bern’s proxy for NYU — as he helps iron out the terms of a generous gift bequeathed by a wealthy alumnus. Italian. As the story progresses, Bill’s path to the Panama prison cell is slowly revealed as he travels through the Tuscan countryside and comes into possession of a dangerous secret.

Structured as a series of diary entries written by the narrator in prison, tuscan son intersperses descriptions of life in the Panamanian prison with wryly-told vignettes and observations of his work at Olmstead. On one page, the narrator discusses the frustrating ubiquity of faculty committees; the next day he is shaken for cigarettes in the prison yard. Bern evokes a student protest in the office of the university president with the same kind of plot he uses to describe the turf war between the drug families that Bill is caught in.

“There were intentional parallels drawn between doing business in prison and doing business in a university,” he said. “You’re trying to get support and voters who will favor what you want to do.”

Many characters and circumstances in tuscan son would be familiar to anyone in higher education: an overwhelmed, beleaguered president trying to please everyone; a crowd of virtuous student activists making demands for fossil fuel divestment; and a bickering academic task force trying, and largely failing, to reach a compromise.

“As an administrator he is sometimes anarchy, while for many professors he is a giant of business,” Bill writes of Olmstead in the novel. “As weird as Olmstead seems now, it’s normal compared to being in a Panamanian prison.”

Based on a true story

tuscan son kicks off with an Italian alumnus donating an entire Tuscan village to Olmstead to serve as a hub for a study abroad program. After much infighting between department heads and deans, Bill, Olmstead’s resident “academic troubleshooter”, is sent to Italy to negotiate the terms of the bequest with the donor’s lawyer and deal with attempts by the the donor’s angry heir to regain control of the property.

Descriptions of Tuscan hills and ancient villages are informed by the time Bern and his wife spent in the area, one of their favorite vacation destinations. But Bern said they also faced a very similar donor situation, in the same region of Italy.

In 1994, NYU was bequeathed a Renaissance villa in Tuscany by the Anglo-Italian writer Harold Acton, which is said to have inspired the character of Anthony Blance in Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel. Brideshead revisited. The villa now serves as the headquarters for NYU’s study abroad program in Florence.

But much like the bequest in the novel, the actual giveaway came with headaches for NYU. Since receiving the villa 28 years ago, the university has been locked in a legal battle with the other heirs ofA group of people standing on a road in front of a tall building partially obscured by tall trees. Acton’s father: an illegitimate daughter and granddaughter who, in a twist that proves the old adage truth is stranger than fiction, happens to be an italian princess.

“It really gave me an idea of ​​Italy, an idea of ​​how business is done there, and an idea of ​​how universities in the United States might interact with Italy,” Berne said. .

In tuscan son, Bill is sent to the village, Follamento, mainly as a diplomat and negotiator (and, later, as a kind of private detective). Berne said dealing with donor disputes and stipulations is both a frustrating and rewarding part of a university administrator’s job.

“A donor and a university will spend a lot of time negotiating the terms of a donation,” he said. “You don’t find donors who say, ‘Here’s $100 million; give it your best shot. Instead, donors want to foster art, solve poverty, eliminate injustice…which makes it fun yet challenging.

The President of Olmstead expresses this frustration concisely in tuscan son. “Why don’t the donors give their money for what we want to do? ” she says.

The campus romance, from an administrator’s perspective

There have been hundreds of novels written about life on campus and academia, most of them told from the perspective of students – Donna Tartt’s The secret storyby John Williams Ripper-or faculty, like that of Vladimir Nabokov Pine and Don DeLillo’s White noise. But novels focused on college administrators are rare. Jean Hanff Korelitz The Devil and Websterabout the first female president of a fictional New England college, is one of the few headlines that tuscan son can count among its equals in this respect.

This may be because administrative jobs are often seen as more mundane and less romantic than faculty jobs. But Bern said he had experienced a lot of excitement during his years as vice-president.

“Most of my time [at NYU] was as a convenience store, and I dealt with a lot of hot potato issues,” he said. “I either gravitated to some of the controversial issues or they gravitated to me.”

Bern remembered being the contact person for NYU animal testing controversy in the 1990s and the chief negotiator of the first graduate student union contract in a private institution in 2002. The chapter of tuscan son dedicated to a student sit-in in the president’s office is actually based on a number of student sit-ins Bern has arbitrated over the years, including one in 2015 on the treatment of workers on the Abu Dhabi University campus and a student recovery 2009 of the cafeteria, during which the students made many of the same demands as the fictional ones in Bern’s novel.

“University governance is extremely messy,” Berne said. “I thought university administration and the ambiguity and complexity it has to deal with would be fun to write about in fiction.”

Berne says his protagonist isn’t necessarily his doppelganger, but Bill’s description of his job as a “college troubleshooter” aligns closely with Berne’s thoughts on college administration.

“If I tackled a problem and solved it, my bosses could take most of it. If I worked on a problem that I couldn’t solve or, which sometimes happened, things got worse, then my bosses might blame me,” Bill writes. “I never complained about the complexity or the difficulty of the problems that presented themselves to me; and I was involved in every part of the university.

Berne had never tried fiction before. But after decades of what he described as “pretty intense work”, writing tuscan son offered him a sort of gradual launch pad into retirement. It was also “a lot of fun”.

“I needed some structure in my life,” he said. “It turned out to be extremely enjoyable.”

Bern said he liked to write tuscan son so much so that he’s already planning a sequel – and after that, maybe an entire Olmstead literary universe.

“Bill might even be promoted to provost,” he said.