Unlike the blogosphere and some unhinged stakeholders, I’ve been quietly watching the PZ Myers crackergate episode unfold. My concerns have been less theological than educational, primarily because I am the beneficiary of an arm of the University of Florida public higher education system.
I’ve been beating my head against the wall as to why the leadership and student government of the University of Central Florida in Orlando would be taking such drastic action against Webster Cook. Cook is the student who took a consecrated communion wafer uneaten from a Sunday 29 June Catholic service at the university. Despite being physically accosted by some of the congregation, Cook successfully smuggled the wafer from the service and held it hostage for a time.
I think that Webster Cook was indeed using the opportunity to draw attention to the fact that state monies are used to support religious activities in a university system with explicit prohibition of such use of funds. In fact, the “church” where Webster snagged the heavenly host was in room 316 of the UCF Student Union (yes, on-campus), not even in the Catholic Campus Ministries center.
UCF Student Government recently voted 33-2 to impeach Mr Cook from his Student Senate position. PZ Myers then posted a few days ago that Cook’s friend, Benjamin Collard, who had been present with him at the service is now being harassed by the UCF registrar’s office and the target of charges from Catholic Campus Ministries.
When I first read the story I was taken aback because I never thought UCF was a religious school. In fact, you have to look long and hard on their website to find the campus ministries page. UCF has made some big investments in their basic science research programs, recruiting some top-notch faculty members. Moreover, together with the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, UCF is building a new medical school to meet Florida’s always-growing need for docs. (I’ve written before on the recent investments by San Diego-based research institutions in a Florida presence.)
My original guess was that the scientific stakeholders there are holding their collective breath and hoping that this episode doesn’t bring adverse attention to the state’s investment in the biomedical enterprise.
But I haven’t been down Orlando way as of late, unless one counts last year’s pilgrimmage to Disneyworld. So, I was unclear as to how prevalent religion was at the UCF campus and just how much it is supported by some of the same advocates and donors to the new medical school project.
In fact, this article notes that:
UCF has an estimated 45,000 students, with about 4,500 identifying themselves as Jewish and about triple that number saying they are Catholic.
In May 2007, Luis Zaragoza of the Orlando Sentinel reported further:
Alan Ginsburg has donated millions of dollars to Orlando-area schools over the years, but his latest philanthropic effort is more of a mission.
Ginsburg is donating land and his expertise as a developer to help create a student village near the University of Central Florida that has a 45,000-square-foot, faith-based student center at its core.
“Students need a continuation of their faith-based life when they leave their families to go to school,” Ginsburg said, adding that he envisions local Jewish and Roman Catholic student organizations as the principal tenants.
The proposed center would be surrounded by student housing and commercial space for restaurants and retail. The project, which would cost an estimated $65 million, has not gone through the approval process in Seminole County, where it would be just across McCulloch Road — and the Orange County line — from UCF. . .
. . .Ginsburg is considered a low-key but influential donor in the community. Earlier this month, Rollins College in Winter Park announced that Ginsburg had donated $5 million to its Hamilton Holt School to endow a scholarship fund, promote faculty and curriculum development, and endow a chair in Jewish studies. He also is a major donor to UCF, having contributed $8 million to the fund for a new medical school. [emphasis mine]
Interfaith programs have become firmly rooted at a growing number of institutions, including Cornell and Syracuse universities, said Rob Goldberg, vice president for campus advancement at Hillel offices in Washington, D.C.
The proposed project near UCF “speaks to the core of Alan Ginsburg,” Goldberg said.
Ginsburg is active in efforts to foster understanding between Muslims and Jews through the Seeds of Peace organization, Goldberg said. So seeing Ginsburg create a place for students of different faiths to interact at a rapidly growing university “is a reflection of his leadership,” Goldberg said.
That extended quote even underestimates the contributions of Mr Ginsburg and the Ginsburg Family Foundation to the citizens of Florida. Since that article was published, the family and foundation have given another $20 million to build a tower at Florida Hospital Orlando to support the new Cardiovascular Institute.
I’m personally in awe of people like the Ginsburgs and their comprehensive vision is admirable. I can tell you that local doctors, researchers, and patients most certainly look upon such huge donations with tremendous gratitude. I hope that when the Pharmboy Family Foundation has grown to the scale of the Ginsburgs’ that we will be as generous to our community .
But while I cannot find any public statement from the Ginsburg family regarding the Webster Cook communion wafer issue (and why should there be?), I can’t help thinking that donors coming from a religious advocacy standpoint might have some influence on the disproportionate disciplinary actions ongoing at UCF against Mr Cook and Mr Collard.
Yes, the Ginsburgs are Jewish but their hearts are in the place of supporting interfaith facilities and activities near (but not on) the UCF campus. Good on them, good for the students for whom this kind of support increases their retention in the university and improves their college experience, (I may be the only non-atheist at ScienceBlogs.), and good for their support of a collegiate environment where an appreciation for and understanding of different faiths might be fostered.
At this point, I hypothesize that UCF administration may wish to demonstrate to donors like the Ginsburgs that they are tough on anyone who threatens the faith-friendly environment of this public institution. I simply cannot think of any other reason why the administration of a public university would be acting so irrationally and bringing further negative national attention to an otherwise scientifically-progressive institution.
However, a wiser approach may be to let the Webster Cook crackergate episode diffuse away, get back to the business of public education, and support off-campus interfaith activities.