When I first entered Mark’s office (he has permitted me to call him Mark), I felt a little underwhelmed. His secretary had warned me that it was one of his “bad days,” but seeing the Vice-Chancellor of USyd lying on the floor with the curtains shut, in a pool of dirty laundry and documents was not the picture I had in mind.
“Hi,” Mark said, turning his head slightly as I entered. “I guess the interview’s started? Sorry for the mess.”
I told Mark it was no concern, and that, if he wanted, I could keep this part off-the-record. I hoped to gain his trust. Since the beginning of his tenure so many Honi writers and editors have written screed after screed on this man, I was sure he was going to be more than a little prickly. But, to my surprise, Mark was more than open from the outset.
“I know what you want to ask.” Mark had moved to his chair now, swinging to-and-fro with his feet tucked under him. “You want to go on and on about my mishandling of the uni, how the staff here have the lowest job satisfaction of the top-8 in Australia, how I’ve shut down protests and increased police presence on campus, how I’ve fired professors because they hurt my feelings, and how I’ve “increased corporatisation” of this university. But to be honest with you mate, I can’t even spell corporatisation.”
I responded: “Surely, despite your knowledge-base, as a business-man you must find yourself implementing tactics that don’t fit into the university ethos?”
“First of all, I’m not a business-man, I’m a business, man.” He paused to let this sink in. “That’s a Jay-Z line, he’s an African-American rapper.”
“Right, of course, great point. What’s the second thing you were going to say?”
“What? Oh, I don’t know.”
As the conversation moved forward, I found I had little chances to interject, or even ask questions. It was apparent that Mark had lots on his mind.
“It’s those damn academics,” Mark said after we had a conversation on how people on campus perceive him. “You’d think the students would be the worst, all their shouting and stuff, but really it’s those professors. I can’t stand them at all. And you see it in the way they speak to me, pointing out my lack of credentials, how I don’t have any clue how any of this works.”
Around this time of the interview, I noticed Mark was becoming more animated, he started to feel like an actual person talking to me, not like this interview was just pageantry.
“Of course I don’t know what to do! I just wanted to make my pops proud. I thought if I ran USyd I’d be well-liked. Fuck, what was I thinking? Have you seen the results of that internal survey we ran? Nobody fucking likes me, nobody trusts me. I really wish we hadn’t made that survey anonymous so I could fire some fuckers.”
Towards the midpoint of the interview, as we were sipping some beers that Mark had grabbed from his mini-fridge, he divulged something that really threw me. He had his feet kicked up on his rich-mahogany desk and we had just finished laughing at a story about this time Mark had gotten someone else’s order at the pub when he stopped and became quiet. “I don’t like living sometimes.” He said, picking at the label on his beer.
“You mean, like you don’t like living this specific life you have? What do you mean?” I asked, naturally.
“I just, I don’t know. I don’t know! Sometimes I wonder who I could have been if I wasn’t doing this. I think I just wanted to be like my dad, he was so good at everything! But this job kind of sucks. No one likes me. I can’t eat with anyone, none of the staff say hi to me, and I can’t even order food safely on campus because someone might have spat in it. Usually, I’d bring my lunch from home but I’ve been so exhausted lately that I can’t even cook when I get home. And my wife is always out with her personal trainer, I’m alone at work and I’m alone at home.”
I felt like the air was made of glass. If I moved I’d shatter this moment. I waited for Mark to say more.
“Sometimes I close my eyes while driving.” Mark jolted suddenly, like he hadn’t meant to say that. He took a moment, saw that I was listening, and continued. “I’ve never told anyone that. Maybe it’s the beers, I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“Are you sure it’s the beers, Mark?”
He was silent for a few seconds. “No, it’s not. It’s not. It’s the truth. Sometimes when I’m driving to work I close my eyes and I play chicken with myself. It used to be that I’d only do it when I was stopped at a red-light, now I do it whenever I’m behind the wheel. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice, this desire just comes over me and my world goes dark. I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to keep feeling like this.”
I’m an Honi writer, not a therapist, not even Mark’s friend. But I sat with him, I sat with him and I let him say it all. I think I might have been the first shoulder to cry on he’s had in a long, long time.
And Mark might not be the right man for the job, maybe he’s incompetent, heavy-handed, and stubborn, he might not interact with the students or student-culture in any way, he might have no interest at all in making the university a welcome space for staff or students, and yea, he sure as hell knows what people think of a man like him getting this job and further degrading the culture of the University of Sydney, and maybe the university could be in much, much better hands, but have you ever stopped to consider that Mark Scott doesn’t like himself, either?
“Hey Marky,” (he has let me call him Marky), “at least we’re going to have a big break! Isn’t that nice? Maybe you could even re-evaluate if this is the right place for you?”
Mark had a bit of a sniffle, wiping the snot with the back of his hand.
“Yea,” he smiled, the mixture of saliva and tears stretching a cobweb over his wrinkled face. “I think a nice big break is something I really need.”