The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 3: How our universities run like social insect colonies


With the understanding that we are social animals and that principles of behavioral ecology for social groups can apply to us*, let’s look at six relevant concepts from ant societies.

1. Workers are in charge of ant colonies; faculty are in charge of universities. The stereotypical, and false, model of ant colonies is that they’re run by the queen. In fact, workers are the ones that are collectively running the show. The queen is the factory that produces eggs, but the workers actually benefit more from the reproduction of the queen than the queen herself (in terms of raw genetic relatedness). A queen is as much a slave of her own offspring than she is the leader of a band of her daughters. I’ll spare you the social insect lesson in detail, but the upshot is that most colony-level decisions are made collectively among the workers and the queen has little to no say in the matter. The queen is just along for the ride, and her life can be truly at risk if she doesn’t lay the right kind of eggs (by using the wrong sperm, or choosing to not use sperm at all). In universities, professors run the show, even when there is little true faculty governance. Even with a heavy-handed administration, we faculty control what happens. The best that admins can do is provide, or remove, incentives for particular activities. Regardless, faculty will do as they please. The good administrators recognize this fact and work within its bounds.

2. Limited resources affect how ant colonies compete with one another; limited resources predict how universities compete with one another. From the perspective of admins, universities are competing with one another for status and funding. Colonies under extreme resource limitation allocate their resources very differently than those that are not those limitations. Unpredictability of resources also affect allocation decisions. The way in which colonies compete with one another is structured by the ways in which resources are limiting.

3. Workers and queens have different interests in how the ant colony invests resources; admins and faculty have different interests in investing resources. It’s a longer story, but the upshot is that workers want different things than the queen. That’s a textbook conflict of interest, though slightly overgeneralized. (Find your local social insect biologist for a longer lesson.)

To make this messier, the workers themselves may not even be closely related to one another, because queens often mate with multiple males and colonies can have multiple queens. Many social insect colonies have behavioral bedlam at their core, with torn allegiances, nepotism, assassinations, and workers policing one another to make sure that they don’t cheat. The harmonious work-together-for-a-common-cause is a thin veneer that disappears once you start watching carefully.

In a university, faculty often have interest interests or agendas for resource allocation, so they can’t all agree. If the faculty can’t organize in a common agenda, then the administrative agenda is often the one that wins. When faculty with conflicting agendas can agree on shared priorities and can communicate these, they have a chance at winning in a conflict over resource allocation, if unified. When faculty are divided, then the ones who win are those whose priorities are consonant with the administration.

4. In ant colonies, the queen controls the productivity of the colony, but the workers have ability to shape that productivity; In universities, admins distribute funds but faculty members are the ones that make those funds go to work. Queens can control the ratio of male eggs and female eggs that she lays. The workers then can choose to help those eggs grow, or eat them. Likewise, administrators can spend all kinds of money on useless initiatives, but they will go to waste if they’re not useful to faculty.

5. While there is conflict in ant colonies and in universities, there is plenty of cooperation. By banding together in a colony, the fitness of any single individual is much greater than it would be if they were on their own. Colonies that don’t effectively work together have lower fitness, and then everybody would be worse off. Wise administrators will recognize that providing faculty with the resources that individuals need to be successful will contribute to higher levels of productivity at the level of the organization. Wise faculty members will recognize that flexibility in using the resources available from administrators, even if not efficiently allocated, is better than intransigence.

6. Developmental constraints have resulted in the exploitation of workers. Natural selection has favored the evolution of cooperation in ant colonies, however in “highly eusocial” groups that have worked cooperatively for a jazillion generations, there are likely to exist developmental canalizations and constraints that may result in workers that have no choice but to cooperate in a way that isn’t working in their best interests. If your mom creates you without ovaries, then well, you better help her reproduce, because otherwise you have no affect on your fitness whatsoever. (Note that this is not a fact that social insect researchers consider as often as they should.)

Likewise, universities have developed a system that exploits their workers that have little to no power to address inequitable distribution of resources. The conversion of teaching faculty into a caste of contingent employees without a voice in institutional governance has resulted in an excess of power in the administration that does not necessarily work in the best interest in the members of the community.

Next week: The consequences of our sociality.

*If you harbor some old-school critique of sociobiology, please take it elsewhere.

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