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Rivas, J. A. 1998. The miracle of universities. Conservation Biology.  Vol. 12(6): 1169-1170
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The miracle of universities

In a recent editorial about the failure of the universities to produce conservation biologist, Reed Noss (1997) explains how his quest for academic jobs was unsuccessful despite his practical background, experience in conservation related activities, and in governmental offices. Noss explains how narrowly trained professors can hardly lead the development of open-minded and well-rounded professionals. Meffe (1998) in a later editorial argues that the boundaries in academia should be softened, giving the students a inter-disciplinary formation with hands-on experience. While I agree with them, I sustain that the problem goes further back. Not only does the problem occur in the formation of the student, but the very acceptance into graduate programs is subject to the same prejudices as Noss describes in his search for jobs. Working experience, genuine research and conservation interest, and involvement in conservation programs, are not considered as plusses (they might be rather minuses) for applicants to graduate programs.

After reading the bias that the universities have in accepting faculty, it occurred to me that the same bias might be present admission processes for graduate programs (as the selection is done by basically the same people). I believe that many graduate programs make selections based exclusively on academic accomplishments, such as graduation from an ivy league institution or specific honor program, while ignoring other traits that might be as important. A legitimate vocation for conservation, as well as clear goals toward practical environmental activities (however hard they might be to asses), must be heavily considered by the graduate acceptance committees. Highly competitive students in academia are in as good a position as any to work successfully towards selfless environmental commitments, but they will not necessarily have the motivation nor the resistance and resilience to frustration that is required for working in conservation. Thus, traits other than academic ones must also be considered in the selection of graduate students.

Not only are the graduates unable to carry out the jobs available as Noss and Meffe explain, but also we lack the people with the skills needed for the jobs. Currently, we all know that we will not protect biodiversity by merely running gels or modeling extinctions. We also need to take actions, communicate with the public, convince decision makers, fight and lose countless battles, and yet put ourselves together in short notice to face the next situation.

The traits important for working in conservation are not necessarily ranked properly in the selection criteria of universities. The curricula rarely consider instruction or formation in critical fields of this discipline, and the professors involved in the programs seldom have experience in conservation in the real world. All of these facts pretty much select against the production of a good conservation biologist. Thus, I believe it is a miracle that universities can still produce some good professionals that can actually accomplish something for conservation.

Due to the relative newness of conservation biology, it is not surprising that universities are not fit to attend to its the needs. However, the time is due when universities and graduate programs must be reorganized to fulfill the new requirements of the real world. Basic theoretical research must continue, but the ivory tower of academia must also be also opened to professionals that will form the type of biologists needed for conservation.

Literature Cited

Noss, R. F. 1997. The failure of universities to produce conservation biologist. Conservation Biology. 11: 1267-1269.

Meffe, G. K.. 1998. Softening the boundaries. Conservation Biology. 12: 259-260.