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Potential Closing of Hebrew Union College Deserves More Media Coverage

By Ben L. Kaufman · April 29th, 2009 · On Second Thought

In the past month, The Los Angeles Times and The Enquirer have reported the possibility/likelihood that Hebrew Union College will close its historic Cincinnati campus on Clifton Avenue.

HUC, founded here in 1875, is the oldest continually functioning Jewish seminary in the world. It trains Reform rabbis in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. The L.A. campus might also be up for the chop, according to the California paper.

Meanwhile, I haven’t seen the story in our daily home-delivered or online edition of The New York Times. That’s curious because it was The New York Jewish Week that broke the story. Even more curious in this media silence is the likely impact on HUC’s New York campus. No one seems to be talking about closing it. Rather, it stands to profit from the death of Cincinnati and/or L.A. schools. It would become the world center for training Reform rabbis, just as other New York seminaries are famous for training Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.

Similarly, I haven’t read or heard a cry of protest from Cincinnatians of any or no faith about the likelihood of losing an institution respected worldwide for its graduates and scholars.

Cincinnati and possibly the L.A. campus are in jeopardy because HUC is in deep financial trouble. Its endowment has been hammered. Fundraising can’t keep pace. Reform congregations are holding back annual contribution for their local expenses. The current college-wide deficit reportedly is at least $3 million and could approach $8 million in the annual budget of about $36 million.

HUC’s Cincinnati campus also houses one of the world’s great Judaic libraries and the American Jewish Archives. Millions have been spent in recent years to upgrade those facilities. If students are moved to New York and/or L.A. and the library and archives remain here, for whom are they maintained? Some faculty fear HUC will sell some of the library’s collections, complaining that would destroy a cultural treasure and research facility.

Meanwhile, I haven’t read an official HUC explanation why closing Cincinnati and possibly Los Angeles campuses would be cost effective and New York would be the better value. Consolidation in New York might not reverse the falling numbers of student rabbis, given the dramatically higher costs of living as well as rising tuition.

If HUC closes two campuses, bet on New York surviving. Not for nothing did HUC’s president move from Southern California to Cincinnati to New York, where peers lead seminaries and universities more prestigious than the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University.

I wrote a similar closing-threatened story more than 30 years ago when Cincinnati faculty feared another president from California would close the campus here in favor of New York and L.A. Fierce local resistance squashed that effort then.

Curmudgeon Notes

• It was an unforgettable “Oh, shit!” moment 11 years ago when I read the Sunday Enquirer’s Page 1 apology for its report on Chiquita Brands International business practices.

Without irony, the lawyerly apology was surrounded by a black border newspapers historically used for obituaries.

That awful moment was recalled by the Business Courier last week when it devoted Page 1 to another story about Chiquita business practices abroad and a huge (for a tabloid format) image of a partially peeled banana with the Chiquita label.

Reporter Dan Monk’s plainspoken story explained of how Chiquita paid protection money to deadly armed groups in Colombia and eventually negotiated penalties with the U.S. Justice Department. Much of this was reported previously, though Monk relies chiefly on a report by independent Chiquita directors that's part of the multinational’s defense against lawsuits filed by families of missionaries and others killed by groups paid by Chiquita to leave its employees and property alone. Monk’s retelling captures an even more important point: U.S. law must draw a bright line between what is illegal and what is allowed for American companies doing business abroad in politically ambiguous and potentially lethal environments.

• Florence, Italy, offers electric recharging stations in some public parking areas. Pull up, plug in and pay. The April 27 Weekly Standard recalled this with a probe of all-electric vehicles as a way to lessen U.S. tailpipe pollution and dependence on foreign oil for cars trucks, trains, etc.

“Fuel for Thought” by Halbert Fischel estimates how much coal we’d have to burn to power an all-electric vehicle as far as a gallon of gas or diesel: a lot. And it would be expensive, he says, based on current electric bills.

As for pollution, hydroelectric is clean but unreliable. Wind is the answer to nothing in most places. Solar requires a lot of sunlight and huge arrays of panels to produce electricity. In short, none of those is practical on a scale that would affect dependence on oil and reduction of pollution, Santa Barbara physicist Fischel says. To avoid building sufficient coal-fired plants with their pollution problems, he says, we must embrace nuclear power beyond anyone’s fancies or fears. Or take a more restrained approach to replacing oil-based vehicles power with all-electrics.

• Pulitzer jurors thumbed their noses at everyone who says we can get along with fewer journalists, smaller papers and, in some cases, no papers. Awards went to local exposes by non-metropolitan dailies as well as The New York Times. That, of course, didn’t protect at least one winner from being fired to save money.

• And if you needed more proof of the value of smart, veteran local reporters who stay with a story, The Enquirer offered three examples recently: Eileen Kelley on the suspect in the murder of four Mexican laborers here, Dan Horn on the seemingly never-ending effort to deport John Demjanjuk and Barry Horstman watching City Council screw around with Cincinnati’s pension deficit.

• So far, the major news media have done a pretty good job of keeping the new swine flu outbreak in context. An important element is explaining that declaring a federal emergency has less to do with the level of immediate danger than laws which require that declaration before federal resources can be deployed.

Think of tornado, hurricane and flood as more typical triggers.

News media have reported that it’s perceived to be a unique strain of influenza for which there is no vaccine. However, existing medicines seem to be effective if a victim is treated quickly enough. If I have an objection with the reporting, it is the unnuanced death totals when it may be unclear what the actual causes of death were.

We all die of something. If I have flu and die, that doesn’t mean the virus killed me. Attributing every death of every person with influenza to this new swine flu makes no sense in the absence of sound epidemiology. That’s why autopsies and lab tests are so important to identifying, tracing and assessing the risk of any infectious disease.

* AM and cable ranters and their fans forever are damning the Mainstream Media (MSM) for not covering stories that arouse their passions. Uh, excuse me, but where did the shouting heads learn about those issues and events? Probably not from their opinion-heavy and news-light networks. Probably from a newspaper to which they turned when they needed something about which to be angry.

• Similarly, have you ever noticed that when those same AM and cable ranters are dead wrong they move on to a new subject for their anger? It was never plainer than in predictions that the MSM would demonstrate a left-wing, hostile and worshipful Obamania to the “Tea Party” staged by tax protesters around the country. Other than pointing out some of the nasty wingnuts that brought their signs, coverage was straight on: tax protesters gathered to make their collective voices heard. Oh well, move on. There’s always Hillary.

• Ann Arbor’s daily paper is shifting to a twice-week print edition and daily online news. A Christian Science Monitor story quotes the mayor rejoicing because this puts the home of the University of Michigan ahead of other cities facing the same or worse outcomes as local papers falter. The point: Ann Arbor is one of those cities saturated by laptops, smart phones and other devices make news accessible all of the time. He also could have wondered aloud, “How do you read a newspaper at a coffee shop when every table is covered with laptops?”

• Reports of money flowing into Lebanon to finance the coming national election recall an anecdote in Miles Copeland’s book, Game of Nations. He recalls a Soviet agent congratulating Americans in Beirut for backing winners without pricing everyone else out of the market in the first Lebanese election after World War II.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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