Universities – Providing A Function To Society Similar To What Mitochondria Do For The Cell

I was reading up on basic cell physiological function, specifically that of cellular mitochondria, last week, around the time that at my University alma mater, the students there currently were protesting vigorously for the removal of statues of historical figures they did not appreciate which were on the campus. The student protests got me thinking of what the teleological function of Universities is, beyond just places of learning, and it struck me that they serve a function for states and societies similar to that which mitochondria serve for a cell. A University is broadly defined as an educational institution designed for instruction, examination (or both) of students in many branches of advanced learning, for conferring degrees in various faculties, and often embodying colleges and similar institutions. The original latin word for a University is ‘Universitas’, which describes a number of persons associated into one body, a society, or an institution, which is self-governing, independent and determines the qualifications of its members. To this day Universities have traditionally strongly protected their autonomy and independence from state institutions, even if paradoxically they are usually dependent on the state in which they exist for their existence in the form of funding and financial grants from the state for their running costs. Universities as we know them are thought to have developed from church teaching structures, starting in around the 6th Century AD in Europe and developing into the structures they still exist as in the 10th and 11th Century AD – for example the University of Bologna was established in 1088, the University of Paris in 1150 and the University of Oxford in 1167. Universities were set up initially as teaching institutions, but developed over the following centuries to incorporate research / knowledge generation as another important component of their business. In the early years, Universities generally taught general or ‘preparatory’ subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, music, politics, astronomy and languages, but with time developed increasing subject specialization in subjects like medicine, law, engineering and accounting amongst others. Modern Universities offer a huge, diverse array of courses, from sport science to clothing and building design, and even more specific postgraduate courses have been added to the University business offering / portfolio, along with Doctoral degrees which are traditionally research focussed, and associated with developing novel knowledge via the research endeavour in the field in which they are awarded. While these additions have strengthened and added to the rich tapestry of most University environments, and Universities are now ubiquitous through all countries in the world, what is interesting is that the basic concepts of the University which were present from their start all those years ago, of autonomy from the state and self-governorship, along with the same campus and faculty based working environment, and of course all the peculiar traditions such as gowns, caps, and professorial academic ranking, which are treasured by those working and attending Universities, still exist, even if they often appear asynchronous with modern garb and work environments.

Universities fulfil other functions in society beyond the formal teaching of specific subjects. Apart from being a place for developing an individual’s specific creative talents beyond that which could occur in the required uniformity of the school environment, Universities also are, or should be, an environment where the ‘human’ dynamic is nurtured and developed, as my current charismatic Rector, Professor Jonathan Jansen, well describes it. The ‘human’ virtues are those intangible ones, related to the quest for knowledge, the quest for truth, the quest for virtue, and the capacity in a protected environment, which Universities usually are, to challenge current thinking, challenge dogmas, and challenge any status quo. It is not for nothing that even today general degrees such as those of the humanities are still highly prized, given that they train future students to be leaders and managers, and not just skilled artisans in their particular area of training, who are able to see the ‘big picture’, are able to debate in a skilled way, and are able to understand that most of life is about influencing any activity one is involved in a nuanced and ‘politically’ astute and ‘humane’ way, rather than by brute force or ‘might is right’ way.

Perhaps because of both this autonomy from surrounding state and other structures, and due to the inherent encouragement of Universities to challenge dogma, and to resist external change if it is deemed unethical or if it could potentially undermine the autonomy of the University itself, University folk, in particular the student body, are often ‘at odds’ with external individuals and organizations in society who have authority, and are often early agents for change in society. An example of this is evident in the 1950’s Hungarian student uprising against Russian control of Hungary, which lead to a nation-wide revolt, which while ultimately being unsuccessful and leading to a brutal suppression by Russia, weakened the ‘Iron Curtain’ which ‘hung’ over Eastern Europe for most of the second half of the 20th century. Another is that of the Kent State University demonstrations in the USA in the 1960’s against American involvement in the Vietnam war. The demonstrations turned violent after several protestors were shot by Ohio state guardsmen, and spread from Kent State University across University campuses throughout the USA, and eventually into the broader American society, and therefore surely played a part in the USA eventually withdrawing from the Vietnam conflict. So in effect, Universities can be major agent for social change, and its academics and students are often at the forefront of societal debates. Because of such protest action and civic demonstrations (and other forms of more benign methods of protest such as writing and debate), Universities often, as in the examples above, play the part of a societal moral conscience, or a ‘barometer’ of a societies needs or perceived shortcomings, to which the societies rulers potentially have a ‘blind spot’, or in societies whose leaders have brutal / repressive policies against their own citizens or a segment of them.

It must be noted though that Universities, because of the fact that they treasure their autonomy so highly, can also become ‘out of synch’ with their society in a conservative way too, and are not always progressive ‘vehicles’ for change. They may, in a changing social environment, retain practices which are deemed unacceptable, unethical or unhealthy by the society in which they exist. These include for example the practice of ‘hazing’ new students in University residences – initiation practices which are regarded as ‘right of practice’ and being part of University tradition by those who perform them, but in any contemporary environment would be regarded as overt bullying behaviour. In South Africa, a particularly challenging problem is transforming the ethnic demographics of University academics. As a relic of the Apartheid era, a number of Universities still have a predominantly white academic body, which is incongruous in relation to the ethnic demographics of South African society. Yet, when such Universities are challenged to transform, they often use University autonomy principles as a method of opposing any such changes, in either an overt or covert manner. It will long be a debate in such instances of how and when both the state and indeed society needs to intervene in such University environments – they have a powerful tool to do so in their capacity to ‘turn off’ the funding ‘tap’ – and whether the state, society, or indeed the Universities own student should physically intervene, as the students did at my alma mater a few weeks ago by demonstrating against their own University and its management in order to change the status quo which was perceived (rightfully in my opinion) to require change. So as much as Universities can be a vehicle for positive societal change, paradoxically due to their requirement for autonomy they can also be a vehicle for resisting positive change, and become out of kilter themselves morally and ethically with the society in which they exist. When this happens, strong moral leadership is required by both university and state leaders and managers to get things ‘right’ while equally maintaining the universities conventional level of autonomy.

Coming back therefore to the example of the mitochondria in the cell and its relevance to the teleology of the University as an entity and its relationship to the State, the mitochondria occur in every cell in the body, and are essential for life, as they are responsible for breaking down most of the food and fuels we ingest into energy which is used by all the processes and activities in the cell. Yet, mitochondria are completely self-sufficient and autonomous and have even their own DNA and replicate independently of the cell’s DNA and routine cell replication. Some scientists believe mitochondria were incorporated into cells millions of years ago, before which they were unique and separate entities, and only when mitochondria did become part of the cell did ‘life’ as we know it begin (of course while being a great theory, the question one naturally asks is how the cell existed then before the mitochondria were incorporated!) in each cell, and then combinations of cells, and then the life forms which we currently know and exist as. In folk who have non-functioning or poorly functioning mitochondria, often due to genetic abnormalities or to toxins damaging them, individuals can live and function, but cannot ‘get out of first gear’ – exercise is difficult or impossible, and all affected cells and body systems function sub-optimally. Universities are therefore in some ways analogous to the mitochondria in the function they serve to the state and society. Without them, society and states would continue to exist, but would perhaps lose their capacity for invention, for new energy (in the form of the new leaders and thinkers they generate), and for new ways of doing things. Paradoxically, with all their centuries old habits and traditions, their funny gowns and academic hats, like mitochondria for cells, Universities are the ‘energy generators’ of states and societies and ensure that there is constant renewal, replacement, and regeneration of all of the state and societies functions, activities and ways of thinking. Long may Universities exist, and indeed be allowed to exist, by the society in which they continue to ply their trade in an autonomous yet surely essential way, in order for the societies and states to keep on developing, innovating, understanding and moderating their own behaviour and way of doing things!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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