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:
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.