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Five points of impact
>WITH $520 MILLION ACCRUED in gifts and pledges at the time of its public launch, the Light the World campaign has already stimulated serious new developments at Boston College. Following are accounts of programs that have been launched in interreligious dialogue, international social work, financial aid, and nanotechnology research, and of planning for construction of a new commons building alongside the Dustbowl.
Table of contents
The Symposia on Interreligious Dialogue
The Global Practice Fellowship
The William J. Flynn Endowed Scholarship
It’s a small world
The Biosensor Project Group
Elements of style
The Symposia on Interreligious Dialogue
When Boston College Provost Cutberto Garza greeted guests at an interfaith forum this fall by noting his pleasure at addressing an audience that reflected “multiple wisdom traditions,” one of the pieces of evidence he must surely have had in mind was the trio of young women in traditional Muslim headdress near the front of a packed Heights Room in Corcoran Commons. As was later learned by a reporter, they had traveled together from Hartford, Connecticut, where the three wimpled women had been sent by an Islamic institute in Syria to earn master’s degrees in Muslim-Christian dialogue at an ecumenical Protestant seminary. With them was a dungaree-clad friend, who is Catholic and belongs to a Hartford church that has gathered parishioners on several occasions to talk with the Muslim women. As the featured speaker David B. Burrell, CSC, a leading expert on Christian-Jewish-Islamic dialogue, observed later that evening, “Something is happening.”
Something, cataclysmically, happened on September 11, 2001, and there’s no use trying to dislodge that date and its meaning from any discussion of religion’s role—and particularly that of Islam—in world affairs. But Burrell had something else in mind: what he termed an “acceleration” of Christian-Muslim relations recently that “contrasts dramatically with 14 centuries of conflict or standoff.”
The formal backdrop of his September 19 Boston College lecture—which launched a weekend of conversations among religion scholars at Boston College’s retreat center—was one of the “happenings”: a September 2007 message to world Christian leaders, signed by 138 prominent Muslim clerics and intellectuals. The 29-page statement, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” highlighted shared beliefs among Muslims and Christians as well as Jews (centering on love of God and neighbor), and it has jelled into an ongoing interfaith initiative.
Pope Benedict XVI praying in a celebrated Turkish mosque was another happening easy enough for all to see. (The pope journeyed to Istanbul in November 2006 after unguardedly, and controversially, quoting a Byzantine emperor who deemed Islam irrational.) What remains unseen, for the most part, are the conversations—the working meetings among scholars and clerics at which the support beams of interfaith dialogue are fashioned using tools of the theology trade to stretch exclusivist notions and unclog channels of conversation.
Some of this craftwork was on public view on September 19, in Corcoran Commons, where nearly 275 people, including many undergraduates, turned out to hear Burrell, a Notre Dame emeritus professor of theology. And the work carried over into the weekend, as 35 scholars of various traditions gathered in Boston College’s Connors Family Retreat Center, in Dover, Massachusetts, for two days of talks around a rectangular table.
These public and private discussions marked the launch of the Boston College “Symposia on Interreligious Dialogue,” a series of parlays that have been funded by a gift from University Trustee Brien O’Brien ’80, who is concerned about the impact of religious conflict on global society and economic development. “Local cultural and religious beliefs that once had an effect only on a relatively small region now spill over into everyone’s backyard,” says O’Brien. “Boston College should have a leadership role in the dialogue we need—not just among scholars, but among all people of good will.” (Cosponsoring the five-year initiative is the theology department, the Church in the 21st Century Center, and the School of Theology and Ministry.)
In his lecture titled “Dialogue Between Muslims and Christians as Mutually Transformative Speech,” Burrell went to work on doctrines that have long presented a picture of antagonism between the faiths. Using a soft hermeneutical brush, he offered finer articulations of what each faith believes that would support “mutually enriching dialogue.” His most suggestive iteration had to do with respective claims about Jesus and the Koran, doctrines that, in times past, were adjudicated by Christians and Muslims on battlefields and periodically in torture chambers. Setting up a “fundamental analogy,” Burrell stated: “As Christians believe that Jesus is the Word of God made human, Muslims believe the Koran is the Word of God made book.” In that move, Burrell highlighted both radical commonality (in the Word of God) and characteristic ways of mediating the Word within each tradition.
Responding to this presentation, a Muslim scholar who chairs Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University took Burrell’s formulation a remarkable step further. Joseph E.B. Lumbard raised the question of whether the Koran “repudiates the idea that Jesus is the Son of God” or simply rejects some crude interpretations of this defining Christian dogma. Lumbard (joined as a responder by Francis X. Clooney, SJ, of Harvard Divinity School) concluded that the Muslim holy book “can be read either way” on that quintessential point. That’s not the standard Muslim interpretation, as Lumbard made clear when he quipped at the end of his remarks, eliciting chuckles from the audience—”If I go on, I might never be able to go to Mecca.”
That night and during the Dover exchanges (which branched out to other religions, as well), there was some productive conversation surrounding the Muslim doctrine of “the uncreated Word,” which depicts all of the Koran as eternal, unalterable truth. Such a doctrine, applied to any Scripture, can be a dialogue-stopper. Some of the scholars, however, tried to build up the distinction between this “uncreated word” and the “created word,” the latter being human interpretation, which is mutable. The distinction resonated with Sabrina Aloukla, one of the three women wearing headscarves in the Heights Room. Clasping this reporter’s notebook to make a point, she explained following the forum, “This paper, these notes, everything we write—they are all created words.”
Continuing this thread in Dover, Omid Safi, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina, assigned all religious doctrines to this created-word category, asserting, “It’s an error to speak of anything other than God as absolute truth.” Otherwise during that Saturday session, Islamic studies professor Asma Afsaruddin, of Notre Dame, rolled up her sleeves and dug into centuries-old Muslim interpretive texts that have left an exclusivist mark on what would seem inclusive passages from the Koran. Those passages include verse 29:46, regarding Christians and Jews: “Do not dispute with the People of the Book . . . except for those who do wrong among them.”
While hauling aside roadblocks to dialogue, the scholars in Dover unexpectedly bumped into barriers put up by a couple of their number. For example, Hindu scholar Anantanand Rambachan of St. Olaf’s College (a Lutheran school in Minnesota), frankly asked his fellow scholars why he should engage in interfaith dialogue if he believes, as he does, that Hinduism contains the truth necessary for “my spiritual well-being and liberation.” In an interview afterward, Rambachan said he hasn’t heard a satisfying answer to that question. But just as he was shutting one door to dialogue, he opened another, invoking the virtue of humility. He said his own claims about Hinduism’s truth are inevitably humanly flawed.
In fact, humility is one of five conditions of interfaith dialogue dissected by Boston College theologian Catherine Cornille, coordinator of the new symposium series, in a new volume from Crossroad Publishing. Other conditions elucidated in her The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue are “commitment” to one’s own tradition, global and spiritual “interconnection,” “empathy” toward other traditions, and “hospitality” toward their beliefs. Part of Rambachan’s contention is that “truth” should be a category of its own, a point he interjected into a discussion in which two Buddhist scholars aired the Dalai Lama’s view that a religion must be judged by its “results,” not by its dogmas. Rambachan countered that a religion’s truth claims “can’t be pushed aside” in dialogical encounters.
It’s never easy to gauge the social effects of scholarly interchange, but worth remembering are the three Muslim women—part of a seven-member contingent at Hartford Seminary—who say they’ll be going back to teach next year at the Al Fatih Institute in Damascus. It takes very little imagination to picture them returning to the Middle East with some created, and creative, words assembled over a weekend at Boston College.
The Global Practice Fellowship
The complex drug protocol that lends life to people suffering from AIDS comprises a bewildering regimen for anyone afflicted with the disease, let alone children. And the “drug cocktail” obstacle course can be even more difficult to negotiate when infected children are kept from the knowledge that they have AIDS.
Dorothee Stangle, MSW’08, came to know such children in a remote South African village where she did her field placement during the spring 2008 semester. She spent a little more than three months at a clinic run by AIDS Care Training and Support, or ACTS, an organization that dispenses antiretroviral drugs to individuals who are HIV positive. All of the 1,500 outpatients are steered into support groups that guide them through the antiretroviral maze of pills, serums, and vitamins taken in different combinations at various times during the day, often with troubling side effects. One of Stangle’s tasks was to work with children who don’t know the precise reason they’re being put through this pharmaceutical grind. (When they ask, the stock response by caregivers is, “You need this for your health.”)
Now living in her hometown of Denver, where she did voter registration work and political organizing this fall, Stangle, 26, explains in a telephone interview, “The stigma in the area is so extraordinary that nobody talks about HIV, even though a third of the population [in the region to which she was posted] is HIV positive.” She gently refers to “cultural barriers,” that is, tribal beliefs that lead villagers to attribute their symptoms to a spell cast by a neighbor, for which the accepted cure is traditional healing. The children who sat in circles with Stangle were getting Western medicine, but experts say the treatment—which can fail with a single missed dose—holds out brighter hope if the children know the truth about their circumstances. And so, Stangle’s burden was to help prepare each child for living consciously with AIDS, which begins with a parent’s or caregiver’s consent. Her tools included crayons and paper, and messages delivered through mime.
Stangle—who served for a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer with youth groups in central Massachusetts before studying at Boston College—came to South Africa through a distinctive program offered by the Graduate School of Social Work. She was one of 20 graduate students who formed the second yearly cohort of the highly selective Global Practice Program, which sends students to work with partner agencies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “This is not tourism. It’s very rigorous, and it’s a hardship,” says GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi, noting that at least half the students journey to points in Africa where diseases such as tuberculosis constitute an ever-present danger.
While many social work schools organize short stints overseas, typically between semesters, only a handful of universities in the United States offer in-depth training in international social work, according to Godenzi, himself a Swiss native. Aside from the administrative challenge of mounting such a program that involves placements on three continents along with courses geared specifically to working in developing countries, the costs can be daunting for a social work student on a prolonged overseas stay—averaging $8,000 in living and travel expenses, above tuition. However, an endowment of $250,000 from Navyn Salem ’94 and her husband, Paul, allows Godenzi to bring down those costs for selected students each spring semester. Stangle, who has a bachelor’s in business management from the University of Denver and whose mother is a social worker in that city, was designated last spring as the first recipient of the Global Practice Fellowship. That funding, plus a reliable baby-sitting gig in Boston, became her ticket to South Africa.
Students who participate in the three-year-old Global Practice Program invariably have prior experience overseas. Indeed, such students are selected partly because it’s deemed likely they’ll better absorb the shock of doing social work in destitute countries. Stangle, who was born in Germany and came to Colorado with her parents when she was three, had taken a GSSW course that put her in India for a month with a regional Jesuit social-action agency. Still, she was shaken by what she saw soon after arriving last January in the rural outpost where she was assigned, near the town of White River, northeastward in South Africa.
At the time, she shadowed a medical team that visited a 10-year-old boy who had been untreated. “He was very, very sick. And he had scabs all over his body,” Stangle recalls, alluding to a frightful skin condition related to AIDS. With his mother’s blessing, the boy was put on antiretroviral drugs, which inhibit the virus’s development. A month later, he was laughing and playing with other children as an outpatient at the clinic’s sprawling compound. Everything had changed, except he still didn’t know he had AIDS.
The boy took his place in Stangle’s weekly circle of 10 children, ages eight to 16. In a spacious room with large windows opening onto a playground, he and others talked (they all spoke English) about things they had in common, such as living with grandparents or aunts (because their parents had died of AIDS). They related their special talents, like singing or arithmetic, which they were asked to express through mime, and which the other children then had to guess.
They drew pictures. One teenage girl sketched her house and a cloud above containing three letters, “HIV.” When Stangle asked what that meant, the girl said, “It doesn’t mean anything.” Then the girl added, “My mom had HIV.”
The day of knowing came for just a few of Stangle’s children before her departure in April, although she says most parents or caregivers had expressed a desire to disclose the children’s conditions to them eventually. Stangle relates that one 13-year-old girl spoke not a word when told of her illness, and sank into denial afterward. Another girl, 16, had suspected her HIV status because her mother had succumbed to the disease. This girl immediately became a helper, reaching out to the other children, says Stangle, and now works with the clinic.
Stangle had other responsibilities while in Africa. With help from Boston College librarians who e-mailed her articles from social work journals, she evaluated the support-group process at the clinic, and her report led the agency to add more groups and offer them at times more convenient for job-holders. She also helped facilitate an adult counseling group, which provided emotional support as well as practical help with the antiretroviral regimen. Back in Colorado, Stangle spent part of this fall working for a community-based organization and registering minority voters, before diving further into swing-state politics as a deputy field organizer with the Barack Obama campaign. She’s now seeking a career in global health and social policy analysis.
The William J. Flynn Endowed Scholarship
A year ago, Meghan Monahan, now 19, of Aspinwall, Pennsylvania, knew Boston College as the place that was “way out of my league,” financially.
Then, last November, she borrowed her mother’s 10-year-old Infiniti and went on a road trip with a girlfriend, driving from western Pennsylvania to Boston, where their plan was to briskly walk the Freedom Trail (the weekend was rainy), inspect the Boston Tea Party ship, and head home. It was not a college tour. The two high school seniors had every expectation of applying only to colleges in the Pittsburgh area, where Monahan had already received scholarship offers. But on their way out of Boston, they decided to roll by Boston University and a second campus a bit farther west.
“I’m a huge stickler for architecture, and I just fell in love with the campus,” says Monahan of her first stroll through the main gates and along Linden Lane. “And I’ve always wanted to go to a Catholic college.” The daughter of a contractor who buys neglected homes and sells them after accruing sweat equity (a business that’s been drubbed by the housing market), Monahan still thought of Boston College as a place she could not afford. But she applied. When word came that she was accepted—and invited into the Arts & Sciences Honors Program—she was gratified, but no more able to contemplate the anticipated costs.
Soon after, though, Monahan learned that Boston College had become affordable to her due to a significant financial aid package made possible in part by Bill Campbell, a man who never attended Boston College but called plays as an assistant football coach (1968–73) during the tenure of the late William J. (Bill) Flynn ’39, a longtime athletic director. Campbell went on to grander things, now as chairman of the software giant Intuit, but he never forgot Bill Flynn, who “helped form me,” he says, setting an example of integrity: “How you don’t have to cut corners to be successful.” Campbell recently endowed a $1 million financial aid fund with no caveats other than that the aid be apportioned on the basis of need, and that it carry not his name, but that of his one-time boss at Boston College.
Little more than a week into her life on the Heights, the freshman recipient of the William J. Flynn Endowed Scholarship met with a reporter at a coffee shop near the Boston College T stop. Monahan cheerfully declined an offer of pastry with her late afternoon latte, explaining she was saving her appetite for the freshman Lobster Bake that evening on the Newton Campus. “I’ve never eaten lobster,” she admitted, blushing.
Over the previous week, Monahan had settled into her honors seminar (scaling the Epic of Gilgamesh) and begun classes in chemistry, biology, and calculus. She had also joined the St. Thomas More Society, and the University Chorale. “I really haven’t done anything yet,” she said without intending irony, “but there’s a lot I want to do.”
In all, Boston College hosts some 800 endowed financial aid scholarships like the one gifted by Bill Campbell. Some are devoted to benefiting particular kinds of students, such as classics majors or residents of the donor’s hometown. Even when there are no terms attached, however, grant administrators put some thought into matching up stu-dents and funds, says Joanne Goggins of Boston College’s advancement office. Monahan, for example, was paired with the Flynn Scholarship because both she and her sponsor, Campbell, are from western Pennsylvania. (So was Kirsten George ’11, who last year became the first Flynn Scholarship recipient, and who received the grant again this year together with Monahan.)
Shortly after her first chat with a reporter, Meghan Monahan joined the campus Liturgy Arts Group and Boston College’s Best Buddies chapter, through which she does volunteer work with developmentally disabled young people. She’s liking those fine, and she’s pleased with her classes, especially “Western Cultural Tradition” (her honors seminar), with its free-flowing conversation about intellectual matters. Her only mixed review was of the lobster—”great, but messy,” she reported.
The Biosensor Project Group
At a mid-September meeting of the Biosensor Project Group in a small interior room on the second floor of Higgins Hall known as the “brainstorming space,” associate research professor Dong Cai stands at the blackboard while six other team members watch from around a conference table, and begins to trace a chalk outline of what appears to be a handleless coffee cup with a long stick pushing up through the bottom to the surface. The two-dimensional figure is a crude rendering of the instrument this team is testing—a device a billionth the size of Cai’s three-foot-high image, give or take a few hundred nanometers (each of which is one-180,000th the diameter of a human hair.)
Deploying the disciplines of physics and biology with a splash of chemistry, the interdisciplinary Boston College team is looking to upend a plain and unhappy fact of cancer research—that extant technologies don’t do well in finding cancerous material until there’s a good deal to be found. Having invented an inscrutably miniscule detection device that ought to be able to uncover tumors at very early stages of growth, the team is now refining the instrument, making sure, for example, that they are using the right materials to probe the tumor cells.
“If they have cancer, we tell them in two days that they have cancer, so they could go take a pill and never get cancer again. That’s the goal,” Michael Naughton, chairman of physics, told the group. Naughton, together with Thomas Chiles, his counterpart in biology, is the co-lead investigator in the project.
The team’s work is supported this year with a $100,000 grant from the Seaver Institute, a charitable foundation in Los Angeles, and other funding from the National Science Foundation. The investigations are progressing under the banner of nanotechnology, a field that aims to control matter at molecular levels and generally involves fashioning devices that work on that tiny scale—and a technology in which the Boston College physics department has come to specialize. The Biosensor Group—two physicists, two biologists, and one chemist, along with three students—has developed a sensor that it calls the “nanocoaxial cavity” or “nanocavity,” featuring one conducting electrode (the “stick” in Cai’s blackboard rendering), surrounded by another electrode (the “cup,” which is in fact bottomless). The team is constructing billions of these nanocavities, which are designed to go on search missions for enzymes secreted by tumor cells—proteins that are known in the trade as “biomarkers.”
To start with, the Biosensor Project Group is setting its sights on one of the best known of those biomarkers—at least among men: Prostate-specific antigen, known as PSA, is a protein that, when found in elevated levels in the blood, may point to prostate cancer.
The difficulty with current detection methods for PSA, says Chiles, is that they “aren’t sensitive enough to find minute amounts.” He and Naughton are wagering that nanocavities, which detect the electricity that flows from tumor cells, as distinct from the traditional method of detection using fluorescent light, which works well only with larger aggregations of cancer cells, will prove able at spotting many kinds of cancer biomarkers. “Right now, we want to demonstrate proof of concept by capturing a single biomarker, like PSA,” says Chiles.
While the technical work continues largely in the biology and physics labs of Higgins and in a nanotechnology “clean room” recently built on the Newton Campus, the strategic thinking is worked out in weekly meetings of the project group, which includes, in addition to Naughton and Chiles, professor Zhifeng Ren of physics; Cai, of biology, who leads the experimental team; physics doctoral student Timothy Kirkpatrick; biology doctoral student Chenjia Xu; Arielle Cimeno, a senior biology major; and Huaizhou Zhao, a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry.
During the mid-September meeting, Naughton questioned Cai on progress toward refining the nanocavity, especially the stick or conductor, which is in fact tubelike. And he clarified the division of laboratory labor. For example, gesturing toward Kirkpatrick, Naughton said, “His job is to dress the nanotubes with drops of gold.” That dressing is not for aesthetic purposes. Gold adheres well to sulfur, which is present in biomolecules.
Naughton, a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing thick-framed hipster eyeglasses, also offered professorial advice to his group: “Bad data is good data,” he said, explaining that what doesn’t work in the testing is as important to consider as what does work. And there was an air of urgency: “I’m just thinking we need to find ways to accelerate the progress,” he said at one point. (According to Naughton and Chiles, it will take months or even years before they are able to capture a single cancer biomarker.)
Chiles points out that the work would be unthinkable apart from Boston College’s commitment to “integrated science,” which will see its full iteration in an integrated science facility on the current site of Cushing Hall. The facility will house research teams whose members may include representatives from the biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and psychology departments. “It’s where science is going and where BC is going,” said Chiles, a man who moves and speaks with the air of the blue-collar Floridian that he is. Thinking for a moment, he concluded: “Pretty cool stuff.”
Now in “conceptual design,” Stokes Commons, a 140,000-square-foot people magnet on the Middle Campus that will feature bookstore, dining, and gathering spaces, will be the first of nearly a score of buildings that Boston College hopes to add to its campus over the next decade and more.
Stretching south from Lyons Hall halfway across the parking lot alongside College Road, Stokes is also the linchpin for the redevelopment of the open quad that is officially the Campus Green but always called the Dustbowl. Upon completion of Stokes, scheduled for early 2011, McElroy Commons—the most homely and impractical structure on the Middle Campus—will be demolished and replaced by a humanities building, while a new building for the schools of nursing and social work will be erected adjacent to Stokes, freeing up GSSW’s space in McGuinn Hall for new faculty, and CSON’s Cushing Hall for demolition—that building to be replaced by one that will house integrated science facilities (see previous story).
For the past 10 months, fueled by a gift of $13.5 million from Patrick T. Stokes ’64, and his wife Anna-Kristina, work on planning the building has been proceeding in St. Clement’s Hall, the former junior seminary on the Brighton Campus that houses the University’s facilities management division. In a small conference room there one day earlier this fall, a dozen members of the main working group—University planners and representatives of the Boston-based architectural firm of TSOI/Kobus—worked over some of the main issues related to the building, most of those focused on the old architectural chestnut: the tradeoff between aesthetics and utility.
On Boston College’s Middle Campus, aesthetics is about English collegiate gothic, and just how “gothic” the building ought to be is the question that resonates most commandingly at the meeting. The cost issue is central. With their thick exterior walls that bear the weight of the buildings, along with reinforcing buttresses, not to mention vaulted windows and other flourishes, gothic structures are more costly than steel-frame buildings. “They’re Cadillacs, not Fords,” said David Owens, of TSOI/Kobus, in an interview.
At the meeting in St. Clement’s, some members of the Boston College team raised the possibility of using “interpretive gothic” design, which usually translates into a modern structure with decorative gothic features. (Examples can be found on the Lower Campus in the St. Ignatius Gate residence hall and the 21 Campanella Way office building.)
But whether classic or interpretive, gothic design presents challenges. University dining services, for example, is looking to break Stokes out of the mess-hall paradigm of student dining (e.g., McElroy Commons), and would instead like to offer a variety of small restaurant-style venues adjacent to a dining area, causing the St. Clement’s Hall group to ponder how such a dining space, situated beneath buttresses and vaulted windows, could be made to look like anything else but a food court inside a tricked-out mini-mall.
At least twice during the meeting, all of the participants rose from their chairs to huddle around design drafts spread across a long table at the center of the room. The architects said they were interested in creating sufficient commons space in the dining facility to make that—rather than the smaller restaurants—the visually dominant motif. Those on the University’s side of the table, however, were interested in holding back on (expensive) commons space and in developing food-venue space that could be converted to commons or meeting space during off-peak hours.
Some weeks later, sitting in her office near a bookcase that held eight bulky proposals that she’d received from architectural firms, the University’s lead Stokes planner, associate vice president Mary Nardone, considered some of the other challenges facing her team, such as how the community, in Newton, will respond to the design plan, and how to develop space for a bookstore that will have to become space for something else when the store, about a decade from now, is expected to move into a new Campus Center where the Flynn RecPlex stands, and how to make sure the building is both interesting to be in (a few “hidden and reclusive spaces,” said one of the architects), and immediately intelligible to patrons. Touching on the central planning issue of this fall, she said that while there’s no doubt that Boston College will build in gothic style on the Middle Campus, “what we mean when we say we will honor the gothic architectural tradition is sometimes difficult to capture, but it’s one of the things that needs to get worked out in these meetings. We’ll get there.”
The Stokes Commons planning sessions are expected to go on for another six months before a final blueprint—gothic to one degree or another—is submitted to the senior administration.
Read more by William Bole