In these times of Covid chaos and confusion I wonder: What would RQM say?
That would be Robert Quarrels Marston. Scientists, physician, scholar, and the man who invented the modern University of Florida.
Marston was a sort of an early Dr. Fauci who believed in science and didn’t mind questioning authority.
As a Rhodes Scholar he studied at Oxford under the tutelage of Sir Howard Florey, one of the Nobel Prize winners who gave the world penicillin. As the nuclear era blossomed he did groundbreaking research on what happens to the human body after total irradiation. He edited a book called “Medical Effects of Nuclear War.” At the University of Minnesota his speciality was bacteriology and immunology.
Marston bucked the politicians when necessary. He integrated the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in the face of resistance from then-Gov. Ross Barnett. And when Richard Nixon wanted to declare “war” on cancer, Marston, then director of the National Institute of Health, said it was bad science to concentrate all resources on one form of illness to the neglect of others.
Nixon fired him.
But never mind all that. RQM’s finest work, his masterpiece, was remaking a backwater southern football school into top ten world class research university.
I was writing for the Alligator when Marston was named president of the University of Florida, in 1974. And during much of his tenure in Tigert Hall, I was higher education reporter for the Gainesville Sun. I talked to him and wrote about him on an almost daily basis, and it was clear that UF hadn’t seen his like before.
Marston’s predecessor hailed from the ranks of good old boy politics. Stephen C. O’Connell longed for the days when freshmen still wore beanies, and he simply couldn’t cope with the rising anti-war, pro-civil rights sentiment among students who came here to learn and ended up occupying O’Connell’s office in protest. His chief fund raiser once told me that the only time he could get O’Connell to leave the state was to go to SEC meetings.
When Marston came to UF, Shands hospital was pretty much housed in a single building, its finances were in disarray and an influential state senator in South Florida was talking about blowing the whole thing up and starting over again…preferably in Miami.
But Marston changed everything. He raised tens of millions of private dollars to improve and expand UF academics and its research capabilities. He paved the way for entrance into the prestigious Association of American Universities. Under his leadership UF became one of three state universities housing the broadest range of academic disciplines on a single campus.
He created UF’s Eminent Scholars Program and turned the university into one of the nation’s top destinations for National Merit Scholars.
Just this week UF announced that its faculty and scientists raised a record “$900.7 million in research funding in fiscal year 2020, despite many activities being paused for more than two months by the pandemic.” UF’s powerful research and grants machine owes its very success to the culture change and mission refinements that Marston oversaw during his 10 years at Tigert Hall.
A Renaissance man in the fullest sense of the term – he even dabbled in the science of fisheries – Marston passed away here in Gainesville in 1999. He was a gentle Virginian with a dry sense of humor and a wry smile.
I only bring all this up because I’ve been thinking about what RQM would have to say about the politicians and university presidents who are so insistent that we play college football in the midst of a Covid pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis argues that “To take away (the football) season would be short-circuiting the dreams that so many of our student athletes have worked for, in many cases, their whole lives.”
Which is poli-speak for: What doesn’t kill these kids may possibly make some of them richer…at least the few who will eventually get to the NFL.
And FSU President John Thrasher, surely our latter-day Stephen C. O’Connell, assures us “We know that we can do it safely. We think it’s in the best interest of our student athletes.”
Which is NCAA-speak for: We will lose a ton of money if we can’t exploit our unpaid student athletes to rake in ESPN royalties.
Make no mistake, we are talking about turning student athletes into lab rats for our viewing pleasure. Throwing them into close contact in a sport that punishes the human body and lowers its resistance even when there isn’t a plague to complicate things.
All for our personal entertainment and the glorification of our alma mater.
Marston wasn’t anti-sports. His administration built the O’Connell Center, the O-Dome, so UF could up its basketball game. But neither did he salivate over the prospect of national titles. He used his Saturdays in the President’s Box to win Bull Gators over to his vision for a stronger, smarter and more comprehensive graduate research university.
Personally I think RQM – scientists, physician and scholar – would have been rendered speechless, at least initially, by the insistence that the game must go on no matter the consequences. Never mind the inevitable infections. Never mind all of the things scientists are still learning about the long term negative impacts of the coronavirus on the human body.
On the plus side, even as we continue this, um, infectious tailgate culture of head-banging and old school rivalry, a whole army of scientists and physicians over at the health center will continue to frantically search for treatments, cures and vaccines…all of which require lab rats.
What would RQM have said? Not no. Not even hell no!
“What in the world are all of you thinking?” that gentle, soft-spoken and always polite scientist, physician and scholar would have asked.
Because Marston would have understood the coronavirus. He would not in a million years have understood what strange malady infects a body politic that breeds the likes of a DeSantis and a Thrasher.