UC Faculty Nixes Tobacco Money Ban

May 10, 2007

The faculty have officially and unambiguously spoken: The University of California’s systemwide Assembly of the Academic Senate on Wednesday voted 43 to 4, with three abstentions, to oppose a proposed Board of Regents policy that would ban researchers from accepting tobacco company funds.

The regents are expected to take up RE-89 -- which describes the tobacco company’s use of sponsored research to support “public deception” as a “rare and compelling circumstance” justifying the restriction on research funds -- at their meeting next week. In January, the regents' Committee on Finance had postponed its vote on the matter until this month in part to solicit greater faculty input -- and said faculty input, overwhelmingly opposing the proposed policy on academic freedom grounds, has streamed in since.

"This is not something that was a topic of first impression," John Oakley, chair of the Academic Senate, said after Wednesday's meeting. "It wasn't a day in which people felt a great need to opine. Most of the arguments had been made."

Various representative faculty bodies across the UC system had registered their opposition to RE-89 prior to today's vote in letters to the systemwide senate, with eight campus-based senates and seven system committees opposing the measure, citing concerns about the curtailment of academic freedom and fears of a “slippery slope phenomenon” in which other controversial funding sources could likewise be banned.

Just one campus-specific faculty body – the Academic Senate at UC's San Francisco campus, which is primarily a medical campus -- recommended that the systemwide Assembly endorse the ban after a majority of faculty there expressed approval. According to a letter from the university’s senate secretary, 59 percent of UCSF faculty responding to an electronic survey indicated support for the ban, while 38 percent registered opposition. Three percent abstained. (Only one of UC’s ten campuses, Merced, abstained from offering a stance on the policy).

For most faculty governing bodies, academic freedom won out. Many of the letters submitted to the systemwide assembly on the part of various faculty groups pointed out that the university already has the regulations in place to protect the integrity of research funded by controversial or arguably less than uninterested sources.

“[O]nly the faculty have the competence and right to make judgments about the quality of research conducted at the University of California,” Jerold Theis, chair of the University Committee on Academic Freedom, wrote in a letter expressing the committee’s opposition to the proposed ban. “Ultimately concerns about inappropriate influences in research are fully and adequately addressed in the Faculty Code of Conduct,” Theis added, citing two particular sections: “The first is faculty members’ ‘Primary responsibility to their subject to seek and to state the truth as they see it.’ The second is their obligation to 'practice intellectual honesty.’ ”

Research grants from tobacco companies make up a small subset of UC’s total research dollars, which (according to Academic Senate documents) totaled over $4 billion in the 2006 fiscal year. UC researchers have received 108 awards worth $37 million from companies with ties to tobacco since 1995, and there are currently 19 active tobacco industry-funded grants, all awarded by Phillip Morris USA.

Yet, the debate about accepting or rejecting tobacco money takes on a significance beyond the dollars distributed, and, over the years, a number of public health schools -- including Berkeley’s -- have adopted policies restricting the acceptance of tobacco company funds. Harvard University’s Medical School adopted a policy in 2004, and a vote on a resolution rejecting tobacco-tainted money at Stanford University is scheduled for May 17. The issue, though long contentious, has heated up since August, when a judge ruling on a multiyear federal racketeering and fraud lawsuit against nine tobacco companies criticized the industry for manipulating science to support their claims that tobacco is harmless.

At UC, the resolution before the regents depends upon this very premise that the tobacco industry’s “use of sponsored research” to support public deception is “unique, unprecedented and represents just such [a] rare and compelling circumstance” in which a university mandate restricting the freedom of academics to pursue research would be justified.

Proponents of the ban argue that academic freedom is meant to protect the search for truths, not the distortions in which the tobacco companies allegedly traffic: "Given that the purpose of the university – and the reason that we have 'academic freedom' -- is to protect the search for and dissemination of truth, continuing to accept tobacco industry funding is antithetical to the very purpose of the university," Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco, wrote in a September letter to the regents.

But ultimately, Faye J. Crosby -- who, as chair of the Academic Senate at UC Santa Cruz, expressed the faculty body's opposition to the ban in a letter to the Assembly -- wrote that while she personally would support the proposed policy, “I am persuaded by my colleagues who oppose RE 89 that the Regents have thus far failed to articulate what it is that makes tobacco a unique case.”

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