As public universities across Florida are faced with a bleak future regarding their budgets, alternative sources of funding are being examined. While grants and donations provided by private companies have always been a part of the modern university experience, some institutions have decided to take a more active role in policing who may or may not donate.
An article in the New York Times on Monday reported that one industry has found its money not necessarily welcome: big tobacco. The University of Texas decided two months ago to no longer accept funding from any tobacco companies for faculty research or student groups.
George W. Gau, dean of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, said the university would not accept money from tobacco companies because “it is money gotten from a product that is significantly harming people.”
It is a very admirable decision, especially when universities are often doing whatever they can to bring in money. But there is more at stake than ethics – there is also a concern for academic integrity.
Michael J. Thun, chief of epidemiological research with the American Cancer Society, said another aspect behind refusing money from big tobacco is the industry’s “50-plus-year history of a corrupting influence on medical research.”
Thun’s bold statement captures only one side of the debate on whether such corporations should fund research. Some in higher education are afraid that preventing any funding from going toward research limits educational growth. The Times reports that the university system of California would not fully ban tobacco money, but require that research funded by it must be approved by the respective university.
Other schools, such as Harvard, Ohio State and North Carolina have taken the steps to destroy connections between their health divisions and tobacco companies because of the inherent conflict of interest.
But beyond tobacco, other private companies that seek to take advantage of researchers at universities. Universities may seek to create pills rather than find cures as the result of pharmaceutical companies’ funding. Other organizations may have a poor history of human rights violations abroad. Universities should take another step and require that the companies providing important financial contributions seek to maintain the same standard of ethics taught in classes throughout the United States.
The universities that have chosen to be finicky in their dealings with are making admirable decisions. Hopefully, when members of Florida’s State University System seek to offset lost money, they will remember to look beyond the dollar signs and examine the human cost a questionable company incurs.