In Reed Noss’s parting Editorial last December, he chastised American universities for failing to produce conservation biologists with training relevant to the challenges of the job market and for being myopic by not hiring faculty with experience outside the world of academia. The essence of his argument was that universities so cling to their traditional, narrow disciplines that innovative, multidisciplinary fields such as conservation biology are perceived as a threat and are avoided entirely or are intentionally kept from flourishing. In addition, where they do occur, conservation biology programs often are deeply steeped in academic tradition, producing students ill-prepared for the real and complex problems facing them in a world strikingly different from the comfortable confines of the university. I believe Reed’s observations to be on target and the problem to be serious (at least in the United States; I cannot comment on its relevancy elsewhere), and I follow up and expand on his theme here. I submit that there are serious deficiencies in academia’s response to the biodiversity crisis, and those deficiencies can be traced partly to the narrow visions of university departments and the disciplines they represent.

In an editorial in Science last August (vol. 277:747) on the “Evolution of Higher Education,” Philip H. Abelson argued the need for higher education to embrace the continuing revolution in information technology. Perhaps unknowingly, he made an excellent point relevant to our own field of conservation biology. In discussing the content of a Kellogg Commission letter to the presidents and chancellors of state universities and land grant colleges, he stated that “The rigid departmental structure has become outmoded. Many of the best opportunities for significant scholarship lie in multidisciplinary areas. Yet a comment in the Kellogg Commission letter is to the effect that society has problems; universities have departments” (emphasis added).

Most universities, indeed, are organized by traditional departmental structures: biology, chemistry, mathematics, political science, geography, philosophy, literature, and so forth. But the world’s problems are not neatly confined within such clean, departmental boundaries; they are without boundaries. What exactly are the disciplines relevant to the great conservation challenges of the day? Biology? Yes. Chemistry? Yes. Mathematics? Yes. Political science, geography, philosophy, and literature? Yes, and many more. In fact, virtually any discipline taught at a typical university has relevance to some aspect of nature conservation. Yet we continue to address the problems—and train students—largely along departmental lines. Sometimes we bravely step across those territorial boundaries and include the “others”— individuals from geography or veterinary sciences or the law school—but I find that to be the exception rather than the rule.

Consequently, I suggest that universities—the great creators and repositories of knowledge in the modern world—have been far less effective than they could be in addressing contemporary conservation issues. Academia often seems a fringe player rather than a leading force in addressing the complex social-ecological issues that confront us at the close of the twentieth century. We fiddle while Rome burns, consumed with the minutiae that seem to drive many university departments, insulated from the bigger picture of what is happening in the world and what our contributions to it could be were we more willing to step across disciplinary borders. As a result, many students trained in our conservation programs, as Noss suggests, are not suited to the needs of the job market or up to the challenges of the problems they will need to address. One of the major reasons for that ineffectiveness is the high walls between departments at most universities.

I am not so naive as to think that departments are passé or should be dismantled to accommodate the needs of conservation biology; departmental walls will and probably should continue to stand. But perhaps they can be lowered in places and made semipermeable in others so that metadisciplines such as conservation biology—which pull together many disciplines for problem solving—could more effectively address the real issues and challenges of the modern world. I reiterate the Kellogg commission letter: society has problems; universities have departments. Because it is unlikely that the problems of the world will neatly align themselves along disciplinary lines in coming decades, it seems prudent for universities to make adjustments to deal more effectively with the complex issues of the world as we enter the twenty-first century.

What might such adjustments look like? How can universities and departments evolve to better meet these challenges and not only permit but encourage metadisciplines such as conservation biology to flourish and contribute solutions? I suggest several ideas, none of which are original, but all of which would help.

First, we should take a more problem-oriented approach to education, especially (but not exclusively) at the graduate level. Departments could train students in the basic aspects of their discipline to gain a degree of technical competence and then give way to broader problem-solving approaches in an imaginative, interdisciplinary manner. There is no reason that a graduate conservation program should not actively engage in local issues on real landscapes (as a few now do) and expose students to the many social, ecological, economic, and political forces involved. Real problems—such as restoration of the Everglades, dam removal in the Pacific Northwest, the impacts of urban development along our major rivers, or arguments over Habitat Conservation Plans—are all ripe for students to apply the science of conservation biology to their solutions. Such application requires many disciplines and talents and is just the sort of practice that will be required of students who will assume professional positions outside academia.

You already do this in your university, you say? Perhaps, but how effectively? One graduate of a well-respected, interdisciplinary master’s degree conservation program at a major university told me that none of the students could effectively answer an exam question about developing a fire management regime for a particular area. Why? Because none had actually done it, they had only read about it. Without practical experience they could provide only theoretical “knowledge” of an experience-based activity. Medical schools train their students in real hospitals with actual patients. Auto mechanics learn on real transmissions and clutches. Why should conservation biologists not be similarly trained in the actual complexities and difficulties of real-world issues? Such “internships” would go a long way toward producing students who could contribute effectively in a confusing social mileau once they leave the womb of academia.

Second, we need to create multidisciplinary programs that pull together faculty and students from many departments and that truly integrate disciplines. This requires significant learning and reassessment on the part of faculty and a willingness to open up to different perspectives than those that drive their own disciplines. This challenges us to go well beyond our own disciplinary comfort zones, but it is exactly what is required in the complex world of conservation science. That same student indicated how this interdisciplinary program was polarized into students from the sciences and those from the humanities; they never really blended but stuck to their own worldviews, and the program was interdisciplinary in name only.

Third, we must modify faculty evaluation and reward systems to account for creative activities other than publication in peer-reviewed journals. Faculty who create or coordinate new programs, who excel in teaching and advising, or who provide service to society through efforts in real problem solving from local community to national levels frequently are not recognized by the rigid and traditional university reward systems. These efforts should be counted toward promotion and tenure right along with scholarly publication.

Finally, middle- to upper-level university administration can help by recognizing and budgetarily rewarding programs that seek cooperation and synergism rather than those that simply seek to outcompete others in a zero-sum game. Money speaks loudly; when interdisciplinary integration is rewarded, it will proliferate. Administrators can also help by minimizing mindless bureaucratic burdens that produce nothing tangible other than files of useless paperwork.

Over the last decade we have seen a refreshing change in how natural resource managers relate to the land and the artificial boundaries we historically have placed upon it. One of the cornerstones of ecosystem management is a push toward transboundary approaches in which formerly “impermeable” lines on maps are being breached for better management. Federal land stewards now collaborate with state managers or private citizens across the boundary to solve complex problems. They now realize how absurd and counterproductive it is to adhere to the straight-line boundaries of national forests or wildlife refuges in dealing with conservation issues, and how important it is to transcend those boundaries to manage real ecological landscapes rather than political borders. If we truly wish to train students who can be effective conservation biologists, we should be taking the same approach in our universities with respect to departmental boundaries. We need to look beyond the walls, embrace individuals with other talents and perspectives, and bring them together to address common problems.

How can we possibly expect students trained in a system with rigid structures and boundaries to be effective in a world that does not obey those rules and in fact mocks academia for its perceived irrelevance and rigidity? It is time to critically examine departmental structures with respect to a relevant conservation education and to train students for the actual challenges of today and tomorrow rather than simply perpetuating the disciplines of yesteryear. As Aldo Leopold stated a half century ago, “The objective [of wildlife education] is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are separate only in the classroom.” It is not too late to heed Leopold’s warning.