Crackergate, big donors, and the University of Central Florida (UCF) medical enterprise

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.

25 thoughts on “Crackergate, big donors, and the University of Central Florida (UCF) medical enterprise

  1. And this is exactly the reason why the financing of universities (and hospitals, museums, you name it) through private donations is a flawed system, and why the money must come from the one and only possibly impartial source, the State.

  2. And this is exactly the reason why the financing of universities (and hospitals, museums, you name it) through private donations is a flawed system, and why the money must come from the one and only possibly impartial source, the State.

  3. I think this is the first truly insightful piece on Crackergate. I felt the Cook situation was being lost in the shuffle.
    Since the Ginsburgs are financing an interfaith community to ENHANCE understanding wouldn’t the actions at UCF be diametrically opposed to that end? They’ve got the “we’re religious” part but to entice Ginsburg funding, a reaction should have been to but to use the situation to educate about catholicism in a positive way.

  4. A Fantastic considered response to the whole mess. Unfortunately so many of these educational organisations might consider themselves to be “held hostage” by religious donors.
    I’m enjoying PZ’s somewhat confrontation response to this but you do get the feeling that the brouhaha that he’s generating is obfuscating these poor students’ situation a little.
    I’d be interested to see what Ginsburg thinks of this

  5. You haven’t met the guy. I’m an undergrad at UCF and I’ve had dealings with Cook.
    We tried to get a bill passed to go on a trip (I wont go into details, rather not be recognized), and Cook took it upon himself to not only insult our group, but try to get policy passed and belittle our bill by taking it from 250 dollars a person, a fairly normal amount of our senate, to 185 dollars a person, an unheard of low amount. He the proceded to vote against us in every single tally.
    The guy is an idiot that giggles and whisper to his friend whenever he votes no, and I’m glad he is impeached.
    I’m probably biased because he picked a bone with my group, but I’m not the only one at UCF who dosen’t like former senator Cook.

  6. SO glad to see this original investigation. Like Abel, I too was a beneficiary of the Florida university system, in education policy no less! — and live in the state capital now. I’ve been very lonely, blogging this story as educational and political, not theological.
    All the medical donor info is news to me. Had you read that Cook’s Catholic father is himself apparently an MD? If true, it might connect too — wonder what his view of the new project is, and whether his son shares it?

  7. (I may be the only non-atheist at ScienceBlogs.)


    You haven’t met the guy. I’m an undergrad at UCF and I’ve had dealings with Cook.

    The guy is an idiot that giggles and whisper to his friend whenever he votes no, and I’m glad he is impeached.

    And you’re an idiot who defames people anonymously on Teh Interwebs. Besides, what is your point? You don’t like the guy, so he shouldn’t be afforded protection of his constitutional rights?

  8. As I understand it, the SGA has jurisdiction over the impeachment charges. The UCF admin would make sure that the SGA standard impeachment procedures are followed, but beyond that, the SGA manages itself. Which is a shame, because the UCF SGA is known for being a bunch of idiotic fraternity-sorority types with too much money and too little accountability, but afaik most universities refrain from micromanaging their SGAs.
    The hold on Ben Collard’s account would also appear to be standard procedure. When a complaint is filed, that sets in motion an investigation/hearing process, and during that process, a hold is placed on the student’s account. We could reasonably argue that it’s unfair to place such holds until AFTER disciplinary decisions are made, but it is not reasonable to believe that UCF is handling Collard’s case differently because it was CCM who complained rather than someone else.
    Another question: Why were Cook’s complaints dismissed so quickly while the CCM complaints are still dragging on? My guess would be that Cook’s complaints rested on a legal interpretation and the CCM complaints rest on what happened at that service. In other words, it’s settled federal law that churches can allow minors to take communion (this was true even during Prohibition); I imagine that the “forced food consumption” is a similarly straightforward legal question. By contrast, the he said/she said question of whether Cook/Collard behaved disruptively would take more time to sort out.
    Does anyone know what happened with Cook’s complaints of disruptive behavior by the CCM woman who allegedly grabbed and scratched him. Was that woman a student, and if so, is that investigation still ongoing?
    If that woman has no hold on her account while Collard does have such a hold, **that** would be highly suspicious.
    But the impeachment proceedings = typical UCF SGA lunacy, and the procedural hold = typical UCF bureacracy. Sad to say.

  9. I’ve been trying to figure out her story, too. That “woman” is Michelle Ducker, photo here, a young marketing-public relations student at UCF officially interning with the Catholic campus ministries. It was reported early on that she gave an affidavit swearing to her version of what happened, but since then she’s dropped off the radar completely, along with Cook’s complaint against her, which (again according to news reports here) WAS dropped with no investigation and no hold on *her* account.
    His most vocal and visible accuser in the impeachment business is another student senator named Anthony Furbush. Would “UCF Student” like to offer his personal opinion of him too?
    The student senate funds religious services on campus with $40,000 per year, from student activity fees. I agree that campus ministries run by and for students, like the student senate? — that’s one thing. But ministries part of the Church hierarchy with the local diosese calling the shots behind the scenes and Bill Donohue playing the Terminator, how can that possibly stand as constitutional?

  10. Thanks, JJ and watercat, for the links. I’m disappointed that UCF takes Ducker’s complaint more seriously than Cook’s complaint. (Assuming the Sentinel blog is correct.)

  11. The UF student tasered by a six-pack of university police at John Kerry’s campus speech last year, was also singled out as “disruptive” by another student (the student in authority for that particular event.) That student’s cue was the entire basis for the police to move in on the young man at the mike, not John Kerry himself being upset.
    After the fact, the same self-centered justifications were given by the student in authority at UF, as we hear about Cook –that the tasered student had been looking for trouble and trying to provoke a disruption, thus got no more than he deserved. And good riddance!
    So a troubling secular question I’m seeing is: do we think it’s good public policy to empower one student to freely abuse authority over others, to sic university police on a student breaking no rules or laws but merely annoying them by daring to challenge that very authority to control them?

  12. Abel, with all due respect, I work at UCF’s Development Department and your assumptions are just not correct. It had more to do with the respect and acceptance of the beliefs of others than anything else….something many of us learned at diverse public univerities.

  13. And this is exactly the reason why the financing of universities (and hospitals, museums, you name it) through private donations is a flawed system, and why the money must come from the one and only possibly impartial source, the State.
    And how would you suggest that states make up for the huge amount of money that flows into their universities from private donors? And what about private institutions that rely even more heavily on gifts?

  14. Why replace it though (or even continue current public funding of such institutions) if private funding is already so superior, and the ends being served are increasingly private and ideological rather than truly “public”?
    If public-spirited, diverse, secular institutions actually aren’t, then a more defensible, practical solution might be to just drop the public funding beard, go back to the more honestly acknowledged and uncoerced private largess of a Carnegie public library model.
    Or we could commit to growing out real beards for all such institutions, at public expense for public ends, as suggested above.
    Or we can just keep up this absurd pretense about the emperor’s clothes — er, beard, you know what I mean! — serving the public simply because we pay taxes for the tailors and barbers to make the whole outfit and then get to admire its private splendor as it passes us by.

  15. Many thanks to those of you (Casz, rutty, cashmonkey, et al.) who thought we had an interesting take on this whole episode. I didn’t want to put up anything unless we had something useful to add to the discussion.
    @Otis: Abel, with all due respect, I work at UCF’s Development Department and your assumptions are just not correct. It had more to do with the respect and acceptance of the beliefs of others than anything else….something many of us learned at diverse public universities. Thank you for commenting from the standpoint of UCF Development but I’m not sure that I understand your objections. I’m not sure what you are referring to by “it”; do you mean the physical assault of Mr Webster or the disciplinary action against him and/or Mr Collard? I very much admire the Ginsburg family, of course, and am just curious as to how you in development are weathering this potentially unwanted publicity. Given the responses from others, perhaps this event has been more positive than negative in the eyes of UCF private donors.
    I’d like to elaborate on juniorprof’s response to Jerome: sadly, state higher educational institutions around the country have become increasingly dependent upon private donations for many capital projects. For example, the state university where I spent most of my career received an average of 16-20% of their budget from that state’s general fund. This had led some state institutions to investigate going semi-private because they are burdened with state budgetary restrictions and policies, yet the state itself is a minority funder of the operation. State legislatures, to a varying extent, want to have it both ways: they insist on keeping tuition low and requiring faculty to make all efforts to get students out in four years yet make it difficult for schools to raise monies in other ways.

  16. Otis said:
    Abel, with all due respect, I work at UCF’s Development Department and your assumptions are just not correct. It had more to do with the respect and acceptance of the beliefs of others than anything else….something many of us learned at diverse public univerities.
    I’m not at all sure that you can say that Webster Cook disrespected others’ beliefs. For a start, Webster Cook is Catholic himself. Secondly, a quick look at Catholic history gives the context of the “don’t take the Host back to the pew” charge. The Host was regularly taken home and consumed outside of the Church until the seventeenth century, when the rules changed to consume the host inside the church so that it wouldn’t be used in occult rituals. That went one step further when the host was consumed in front of the priest at the altar.
    But taking the host back to the pew, even taking it home, is not desecration. It might not be what he was meant to do, but the “disrespecting beliefs” part is just not true.
    I don’t know who Webster Cook managed to annoy, but the accusations of desecration and disrespect seem baseless to me.
    Surely this breach of protocol is a matter internal to the Church.

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