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The Board of Trustees at the University of Pennsylvania will weigh an unusual question next month: Are tobacco companies “morally evil"?

If trustees decide the companies that spin out products that kill people “create substantial social injury,” the university will have met its self-imposed grounds for divestment. More than 500 senior faculty members signed a petition this year urging the university to pull out investments from those companies – a quarter-century after Harvard University did the same.

“Just because we’re late doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it,” said Chris Feudtner, a professor of medical ethics who has helped advocate for divestment.

The university wouldn’t only be behind the times, it would be bucking the divestment trends. Student and faculty activists at colleges across the country have called on administrators to divest from companies that produce coal and fossil fuels – gaining a major win earlier this month when Stanford University pledged to sell its holdings in coal.

But professors at Penn got interested in other kinds of holdings once they realized last year that the university – which has research-heavy medical, nursing and public health schools – still invests a slice of its $7.7 billion endowment in tobacco companies.

“It never would have occurred to me that a place that’s a powerhouse of medical research would still be investing in tobacco. We don’t know how much tobacco stock is in the portfolio. We do know there is tobacco in the portfolio,” said Peter Conn, a professor of English and education and a former interim provost.

Professors also called the investments hypocritical when the university has declared 2014 the “Year of Health” around campus, and the University of Pennsylvania Health System banned the hiring of smokers last year. “When you do that, I think you’ve signed onto the moral evil side of the equation,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University who used to lead the Center for Bioethics at UPenn.

A faculty-produced report last fall showed that universities such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities do not hold tobacco stocks. The American Medical Association divested in 1986. (Yale University did not divest, arguing it would be better to maintain shareholder influence in prodding tobacco companies to be transparent about health risks.)

Tobacco companies like Philip Morris have lobbied against divestment campaigns by appealing to administrators’ and trustees’ fiduciary responsibilities to maximize investments, according to 2006 research by Nathaniel Wander, a senior research fellow on tobacco and global health policy at the University of Edinburgh. “Investment policy should not be used to achieve social goals. The merits of political causes should be decided in the political arena not in the financial markets,” the company wrote.

According to 2004 research by Wander, the company looked to keep top medical schools investing in tobacco companies by “exploiting university concerns about losing corporate research funding as a key element of its anti-divestment strategy.”

Representatives from tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris did not return requests for comment.

Penn officials won’t say how many of its investments are tied up in tobacco companies. It also wouldn’t make president Amy Gutmann nor Board of Trustees chair David L. Cohen available for interviews.

While trustees voted to divest from South Africa amid calls to end the apartheid, university officials have have appeared to balk at the idea of divesting from tobacco. After a January presentation on the topic to professors and administrators, Gutmann “noted that the trustees have a responsibility of fiduciary responsibility to donors as well, who have given on the understanding that the investment portfolio would not be used as a political instrument,” according to minutes of the meeting.

She also highlighted the high bar advocates would need to reach for trustees to consider it a “moral evil.”

That meeting “gave us first inclination that administration wasn’t very warm to this idea. They were surprisingly aggressive about it,” said Michael Weisberg, an associate professor of philosophy and chair of the university’s social responsibility advisory committee.

“It can’t just be something merely bad, it has to be a moral evil. That was the case we’re trying to make,” he added. “Some of the administration is saying ‘Well is it really that bad, companies do bad things all the time.’ ”

Professors aren’t shaping their argument around the financial goal of stripping tobacco of support. They argued in the report that it is immoral for the university “to benefit financially from the manufacture and sale of tobacco” because millions of deaths annually are linked to tobacco use, with most coming in low- and middle-income countries.

They also point to the fact that other top medical schools have divested from tobacco.

And yes, they said, tobacco companies are morally evil.

“I see an industry with targeted efforts on children and targeted marketing on poor individuals, domestically and overseas. I’ve seen an industry systematically gone around to make the product more addictive, all while data is incontrovertible,” Feudtner said. “I can talk about facts and leave it to others to make judgments of whether they rise to that level.”

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