Devilish Deaning: WWMD?
This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of Academic Leader and has been reprinted from The New Dean’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Academic Leader (Magna Publications, 2019).
My son the political philosopher, who works under a devilish dean at a here-unnamed state university, assures me that Stanley Bing’s new book, What Would Machiavelli Do?, misses the essence of the great political thinker’s advice to rulers. But the idea—and the image of deans buying wristbands inscribed with “WWMD?”—got me thinking about my administrative colleagues out there in academia. That new book attempts to draw lessons from The Prince (1513) for modern corporate leaders. (That Bing’s subtitle is The Ends Justify the Meanness should warn you it is tongue-in-cheek satire.) Because colleges and universities increasingly resemble corporations, we might look to such current applications of Machiavelli’s rules for advice about successful political action. If there are no politics to worry about on your campus, feel free to stop reading now.
Sometimes I think deaning is nothing but politics—usually in the best sense of that term but not always. Recall this axiom: academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. But for those in the academy, the stakes are anything but low. Promotion, tenure, project funding, travel budgets, departmental and committee chairmanships—all are determined by political processes, and deans are often thrust (or thrust themselves) right into the middle of political debates, diatribes, and dynamics.
What Machiavelli wanted to do was explain politics and power in terms of human nature. That’s where we come in. Although his true purpose is obscure, conflicting, and complex, he offered to those who lead institutions a practical and down-to-earth set of principles. How might rulers secure the stability of their institutions? That’s a practical question, said Machiavelli, not a matter of grand ideals, pious pronouncements, or the private morality of the leader. Leadership depends on getting followers to comply with the leader’s will; they will do so if the leader acts in accord with their human nature.
Here, then, are a few Machiavellian ideas for you devilish deans who think your job includes strong political leadership to secure peace and order in your institution:
- Use selfish human nature to accomplish your noble ends. Machiavelli broke from the Greek’s classical virtues and the medieval church’s religious values to suggest that leadership should be guided not by morality or piety but by an understanding of human motives. Deans, then, might remember that material rewards may be more important than appeals to faculty to serve the common good or sacrifice for the sake of pure learning.
- Learn from the fox and the lion. Bing writes, “Skillful use of paranoia paired with a warlike stance is the bedrock upon which all Machiavellian rulership is based.” Machiavelli suggests that at times leaders must use strength to punish foes and cunning to fool them. The wise ruler keeps as a top priority the need to discipline the troops, control the action, win the war. Force and trickery are legitimate tools in academic battle.
- Prefer to be more feared than loved. This is a fundamental concept in Machiavelli’s approach to leadership. He and Bing say that leaders should make enemies and then use power to punish them as examples of power in practice. Bing says, “I find the best time to attack people is very early in the morning . . . or at the end of afternoon when they think the worst is behind them.” It is impossible to run a Machiavellian operation without firing people. Keep your faculty thinking about that.
- Negotiate. Machiavelli figured out that—base human nature being what it is—people will act for the common good only if it is also in their private interest. The utilitarian principle of reciprocity is one a skillful dean should use to “sell” (Machiavelli was never above the fine art of manipulation) a particular program or idea. Always answer a faculty member’s unasked but always present question: What’s in it for me?
- Put your power to work. At bottom, The Prince is a cookbook on power. Power, Machiavelli argued, is a positive concept that helps leaders establish orderly organizations where peace and stability promote the self-interests of both ruler and ruled. Power should be used to force, convince, manipulate, and persuade followers to do those things the ruler knows to be essential for the welfare of all—especially the ruler. And if the ends justify the meanness, so be it.
So tell me: Are you mean enough? Do you know how to negotiate to capitalize on reciprocal self-interest? Can you give up your need to be loved? Where would you draw the line—Trickery? Screaming? Public ridicule?
Thomas R. McDaniel, MAT, MLA, PhD, is the author of some 300 articles, chapters, and reviews in 60 different journals as well as nine books, including The New Dean’s Survival Guide. He is a former dean, provost, and senior vice president at Converse College.