At a flea market many years ago, I paid 50 cents for a badly worn paperback copy of Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince," a book that I had often heard of but never managed to read. Some previous owner of the book had thoughtfully highlighted all the good bits with a heavy yellow marker, so there was no need to read the whole thing, though I have now done so several times over the intervening decades.
Most of Machiavelli's advice to his own Prince, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is timeless wisdom, because details change but people don't. Consider this from Chapter 18: "Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them." Or, as expressed in more modern idiom by Samuel Goldwyn, "Once you can fake sincerity, you've got it made."
A few years back there was a small industry of business books based on "The Prince," with titles like "Management and Machiavelli" or "The Mafia Manager: A Guide to the Corporate Machiavelli." I have no idea whether any of these were really more helpful to their readers than the original might have been, though one is naturally skeptical of fads. But making another pass through my copy started me wondering whether there might be a market for some Machiavelli aimed at faculty or university administrators. I'm open to suggestions for titles, and even for content, since there's clearly some potential.
For instance, I'm a member of the Committee on the Course of Study, a small group of faculty, students and administrators that deals with routine curricular updates like adding and deleting courses, and sometimes takes on larger tasks like the proposed changes to the academic calendar that occupied much of the committee's time for more than a year. Ultimately our carefully constructed proposals met with so little approval that the topic has been tabled for a while (certainly until I have rotated off the committee, which is long enough for my purposes).
This committee experience reminded me of another of Machiavelli's insights: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." This surely applies with particular force to university administration — four-year residential colleges and grade deflation are merely two of the more recent in a long series of "new orders" that have been difficult indeed for those who have tried to lead them.
I bought my copy of "The Prince" long before my current association with Princeton, so the subtitle on its cover, "Introduction by Christian Gauss," meant nothing to me. For those of you whose knowledge is similarly skimpy, perhaps even those who live in Gauss Hall, "A Princeton Companion" helpfully explains that Gauss was one of Woodrow Wilson's original preceptors, an exceptionally popular faculty member, chair of the department of modern languages and for over 20 years Dean of the College, a position in which he became "perhaps the best known college dean in America."
Gauss completed his introduction to this edition of "The Prince" in 1951. According to the "Companion" article, "One autumn day in his seventy-fourth year he went to New York to deliver the manuscript of his introduction to a new edition of Machiavelli's The Prince [...]. That evening while he was waiting in the Pennsylvania station for the train to take him back to Princeton, his heart failed and he fell dead." Though one hopes to live well beyond 74, if one is not so fortunate there are surely worse ways to go than peacefully after a long, productive and much appreciated life.
"The Prince" itself is not a long book, only 127 pages in this small paperback, so Gauss's 25 pages of introduction were a significant contribution. Gauss, writing only a few years after Hitler and Mussolini and with Stalin very much in power, ascribed the rise in popularity of "The Prince" to the emergence of new types of states and the clashes between them. I wonder how he would have changed his introduction if he were writing today, with one ill-managed great power and a host of scarily random smaller players.
I also wonder what Niccolo himself would do today to get his message across. Would he work behind the scenes in Washington or some other capital? Would he write learned articles in obscure academic journals? Would he be a cable TV pundit or have a blog? And what would he think of today's Princes? "A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent." My bet, sadly, is that he would have found discouragingly few to be "great" or "most excellent." But that leaves a golden opportunity as you rise in your chosen field, for we are sorely in need of some most excellent Princes. Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.