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UCF earmarks $1 million to study what makes people greedy, generous

UCF earmarks $1 million to study what makes people greedy, generous

By Jennifer Peltz
Staff Writer

October 1, 2002

In a year marked by stories of self-indulgent CEOs, unscrupulous accountants, shady stockbrokers, and all-but-striking sports teams, greed is news.

So when the University of Central Florida announced an unusual endowed professorship last week in the study of greed and altruism, administrators couldn't help but feel they were seizing the cultural moment. Backed by a $1 million endowment, the project is expected to examine whether biology, society or both make a person selfish or selfless, and what parents or teachers can do about it.

"It's certainly timely," says UCF education professor E.H. Mike Robinson III, who helped shape the proposed research from a benefactor's brainchild. "We can certainly see that a good education is not necessarily a moral education in today's world -- everybody at the companies that we've been reading about had a 'good education.' Quote-unquote."

Actually, the new professorship has been in the works, if quietly, for more than a decade. Orlando car dealer, aviation booster, political player and philanthropist Robert Heintzelman planned his $600,000 bequest for a greed scholar in 1990, unbeknownst to UCF officials.

Heintzelman was prominent in Orlando business and political circles for 60 years as the owner of a landmark Ford dealership and the manager of two successful mayoral campaigns. He also led the city's former Aviation Advisory Board, helping to secure the land for what is now Orlando International Airport, where a boulevard bears his name.

Heintzelman also was known for using his private plane to fly needed supplies to war-ravaged El Salvador and bring sick Salvadorans to the United States for medical treatment, among other charitable acts.

Heintzelman kept much of his philanthropy quiet. It was only after his 1996 death -- while en route to his volunteer Meals on Wheels route -- that a surprised UCF found out about his plans for the greed professorship, according to fund-raising officer Jeffrey Cohen. Many benefactors plan such gifts in conjunction with university officials. But perhaps just as often, bequests come as surprises, Cohen said -- though rarely with such a specific and unusual plans attached.

It has taken UCF until now to collect the bequest, line up $420,000 in state matching funds and figure out just what a greed scholar should do.

Research on greed and altruism might be unusual, but it's not unheard of. Many scholars have studied altruism in the context of philosophy, philanthropy, psychology, economics and even evolution. At Binghamton University in New York, for instance, professor David Sloan Wilson scrutinizes microbes and tadpoles for cooperative behavior that, he says, isn't just biological back-scratching.

While some might equate selfishness with survival, "it's possible to accept the idea of niceness and altruism at face value and for it to be evolutionarily successful [in some situations]," Wilson said. "And now, if you look at humans, you could ask exactly those questions: What are the conditions in which greed will out-compete altruism, and what are the conditions in which altruism will out-compete greed?"

To be sure, anti-altruism has its intellectual partisans, too -- including organizations like the Ayn Rand Institute and the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism, which devote themselves to standing up for self-interests.

"There's a different way to look at ethics than just the standard line that we all have a duty to live for others," says capitalism center Chairman Nicholas Provenzo. "That's not a practical way to go through life."

Robinson suggests that UCF's new greed and altruism studies will try to pinpoint a balance between the two traits -- starting with trying to devise a way to measure them.

"There's not a lot of foundation, in terms of hard research ... [on] what are the indicators of development of greed or altruism, and how do we impact that," he said.

A faculty committee is looking internally for someone to start the work while UCF waits for the state's share of the money. Candidates include Robinson, who is leading a $1 million, federally paid project on "character education," or the teaching of social responsibility and other values.

Endowed professorships -- those supported by their own investment accounts -- are plums for scholars, prospects for universities to attract prominent professors, and popular avenues for donors to advance interests.

Institutions across the country have welcomed such gifts to study cereal chemistry, swallowing disorders, sexuality and intimate relations, humor and knowledge itself.

Nonetheless, universities must tread delicately to balance donors' interests with their own.

But UCF, while surprised by Heintzelman's gift, is pleased to tackle his chosen subject.

"It fits beautifully into what was already our agenda" on character education, said Education Dean Sandra Robinson. She is married to E.H. Mike Robinson III, the professor leading that project.

Still, she acknowledged, "it was a rather challenging topic."

Jennifer Peltz can be reached at or 561-243-6636.

Copyright Ā 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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