A controversy has erupted at the University at Buffalo over the Church of Scientology's obtaining an office in The Commons, a privately operated space on the North Campus in Amherst near the Student Union.
UB contends it has no say in who rents space, and that it has an obligation to be tolerant of all views. Critics contend the administration is abrogating its responsibility to protect students by permitting a group some consider a cult to have a staging ground to recruit students.
The Church of Scientology is not recognized on campus by Student Affairs, and it's not one of the 30 religious organizations - each with a religious adviser - in the Campus Ministries Association.
"I am very concerned about their presence on campus," said Dalene Aylward of the UB Campus Ministries Association and a senior academic adviser. "I am concerned they will take advantage of students who do not know what they are getting into, do not know the financial costs that are involved or the history behind the organization."
Matthew Schwartz, an active member of Hillel of Buffalo, said, "We shouldn't allow anyone with cult-like tactics to put students in danger. I think the university has an obligation to protect its students, and if it fails to do so, it should be held accountable."
Representatives of the church, founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and known for its anti-psychiatry stance, declined to comment.
Dennis Black, vice president for student affairs, said the publicly funded school has "no say" in who First Amherst Development leases space to in The Commons.
As an example, Black said, alcohol and credit card solicitations are allowed there but not on the rest of campus.
"It's a private, commercially owned enterprise," Black said.
Black acknowledged allowing office space to the Church of Scientology has aroused concerns among some.
"This is a group that some view as a cult, or cult-like, so clearly it's a concern," said Black.
He said the administration plans to talk to the Church of Scientology "about the concerns that have been addressed, and about our unwillingness to tolerate lawless behavior. We will make it clear the community has standards, and those standards will be monitored and enforced."
On the other hand, Black added, "as a university, we are open to lots of messages. Some of them are repugnant to us, some are offensive, some are challenging, but in the marketplace of ideas we cannot get involved with viewpoint discrimination."
The controversy has been fueled on campus by articles in the Spectrum, the UB student newspaper.
"We have had about 10 letters to the editor, almost all of them negative and citing whether it's a cult," said Evan Pierce, Spectrum's managing editor. "That's significant, because we usually don't get that big of a reaction to anything we write.
"We have been unable to find any student initiative in bringing this group on campus. When we've asked [Scientology officials] to put us in touch with students involved, they have been unable to do so."
Students expressed mixed views over whether Scientology should be allowed to maintain an office on campus.
"There are other church groups on campus, and they should be able to represent their views as well. Especially if they are paying for their space," said law student Jeff Hulet.
Freshman Stephanie Sharpe agreed. "I find Scientology very interesting. I think it's a cult, and I know I would never get involved with them - I think it's more like absurd - but I think if people want to do it, they should be able to do it."
Law student Ray Walter disagreed.
"Any publicly funded institution has a responsibility to the public at large. It would have a responsibility if the Ku Klux Klan wanted to rent out a space."
Benjamin Obletz, president of First Amherst Development, said he wasn't aware of any complaints.
Rich Dunning, a former Buffalo church staff member who left the Church of Scientology in May 2003, said students are one of the organization's prime targets.
"They pursue students because they think they are at a crucial point in their lives," Dunning said.
"You're having a bad time in your life as a young adult and you're trying to find your way through it - hey, we can help you study better or get through financial troubles or other hardships that you have," he said, in his description of its approach.