Friday, August 15, 2008

After Controversy Over Tobacco Money Funding Medical School, University President Steps Down

We have posted about the controversies arising from recently revealed research agreements between Richmond, Virginia based Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and tobacco company Philip Morris. These were first publicly discussed in May in a New York Times article. As we posted here, the main issues were that the research agreements themselves were secret; the agreements apparently gave Philip Morris control over all publications arising from the research, since they defined all products of the work as proprietary information belonging to Philip Morris; and that research for hire on behalf of a tobacco company, given that tobacco products have known severe health risks and no health benefits, seems to go against the mission of a medical school and academic medical center. We also noted that the university administration's apparent lack of qualms about its relationship with Philip Morris might have been related to its president's role as a leader of a tobacco company. (He sits on the board of Universal Corp, a tobacco buyer, processor, and distributor.) We later observed how little attention this subject has gotten in Richmond's major news outlet. Then, we noted that some university leaders were willing to open a public dialogue about the issue, thus exhibiting more transparency under criticism than has been shown by many other organizations. Most recently, we discussed how the Dean of the university's Medical School had allegedly actively sought grant support from Philip Morris for a center for research on women's health.

Today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that VCU President Eugene Trani will step down next year. The article hailed Trani for his efforts to enlarge and expand the University. It also noted, however,

Trani was so intent on unifying the university in a shared mission that he forbid the mention of the Medical College of Virginia, renaming it the VCU Health System.

Furthermore, although the Times Dispatch has not published much about the controversy over the relationship between VCU and Philip Morris (see post here), it did acknowledge

But collaboration between VCU and Philip Morris also has stirred controversy because of the tobacco company's apparent level of control over research it sponsors through the university.

'The events of the summer are unfortunate,' [Professor of Political Science and Public Administration Blue] Wooldridge said, 'and would be a stain on [Trani's] legacy that didn't need to be there.'

A former president of the faculty senate, Wooldridge said he admires much of what Trani has done -- from building the engineering school to forging 15 alliances with universities in other countries -- especially while maintaining his own scholarship as a historian.

However, too often Trani hasn't considered the full costs to the university of his ambitions or listened to the informed opinions of others, Wooldridge said.

'I don't think the faculty has had their voices heard as much as they should.'

I hope that the impending retirement of President Trani will lead the VCU administration to rethink its apparent infatuation with cultivating tobacco as a source of funding for the medical school. The medical school's mission of promoting the health of individual patients, and the health of the public through teaching and research is ill served by financial arrangements with companies whose products only promote ill health.

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