What is a don for?

October 22, 1999

Your headline "Endangered species: why dons must adapt or die" (THES, October 15) does not exaggerate the significance for many academics of what is happening to universities today.

However, your evolutionary metaphor, with those who are resistant to change portrayed as dinosaurs facing extinction, is misconceived.

There is no teleology built into biological evolution, whereas occupational missions involve commitment to values, to what ought to be done. As a result, a declaration that older models of research and teaching are no longer adaptive is not very persuasive.

The metaphor, and the explaining away of resistance in terms of conservatism and vested interests, obstructs the discussion that needs to take place about what role universities ought to play in society. It insinuates that this role is to serve the requirements of employers, to obey the dictates of government, and/or to give students what they want.

For some of us, none of these goals is the task of the university; this is, rather, to pursue and disseminate scholarly knowledge. If no one wants to pay the price for that activity, the costs of its decline will be borne by future generations. Business-speak about "protecting core values" will not evade this.

Martyn Hammersley Professor of educational and social research The Open University

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