Virginia Commonwealth University has been taking its lumps nationally after the New York Times wrote a news story and an editorial critical of a research contract the university had agreed to with Philip Morris USA, one of the biggest and most powerful companies in Virginia.
VCU and its President Eugene Trani are coming off very badly in this public relations disaster, which is largely of their own making. The Times asked reasonable questions about taking money from Big Tobacco under provisions that appear to violate even VCU’s rules in terms of research disclosure and academic freedom.
Tobacco is still poison. Philip Morris makes products that addict and kill. Period. End of story. Please don’t bore me with tales of Virginia’s history and the golden leaf. Two good friends of mine, both heavy smokers, died painful deaths from tobacco-related cancer over the past three years. I still grieve for them.
What’s more, I have covered Philip Morris as a journalist off and on for years. I don’t think I have ever dealt with less forthcoming organization, and that includes the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The last time I talked to a PM flak was last December and I was treated like a mindless idiot for asking questions based on public information openly reported in the company’s filings with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. The apparatchik insulted my intelligence by telling me over and over what “confidential information” was. Maybe I would do the same if I had been sued as often as Philip Morris has. There is a reason why BusinessWeek, my former employer, wrote, “The Most Reviled Corporation in America” as its cover language in a 1999 takeout on PM.
So, academics across the country do have cause to wonder why VCU and Trani have crawled into bed with Philip Morris. The tobacco maker entered into a research agreement totaling less than $300,000 — pin money in college R&D — to research early detection for pulmonary disease and the nature of water pollution from a PM research facility in Richmond.
No worries there, it would seem. In this type of “research service agreement,” which Trani says is the basis of VCU’s “misunderstanding” with the Times, an outside company or government agency approaches a university and works out a deal to have the school researchers do work. There is proprietary material involved, and researchers agree to keep it confidential. The researchers will be allowed to publish a paper based on their research, but the company or agency has the right to review a draft report within a deadline of 30 to 60 days to tag any proprietary info so it can be extracted. The company keeps the patent, not the university, although there is some national academic debate about the ethics of doing so. VCU has been using research service agreements since 2001.
Yet when the New York Times went through the state Freedom of Information Act to get a copy of the research service agreement, it found disturbing language. VCU professors were restricted from even talking about the agreements. If a news organization started asking questions about the agreement, the school was required to contact Philip Morris and provide details. Dr. Francis L. Macrina, a microbiologist who is VCU’s vice president for research, confirmed to me that such wording was in the contracts.
“This (the wording) was unique,” Macrina said, noting that other research service agreements that VCU has with other corporate sponsors do not contain such stringent wording. The reason, he says, was that there were third parties besides Philip Morris who were supplying proprietary data for the project. “It was very complex,” he says. I asked if he could name the third parties and he declined, saying I would have to file an FOIA request.
I asked him if there was a sense of fear and retribution among the VCU faculty about discussing the Philip Morris contract. In my opinion the bit about having to inform Philip Morris about any press inquiry has a creepy, Stalinist flavor to it, but I do believe it, given my experiences with Philip Morris.
Macrina said there was no overriding sense of fear on campus. But he added that not that many knew about it. Only about 150, security-minded faculty and administrators have access to a special contract data base that contains confidential information about the nine or so other research service agreements that VCU has.
It’s true that universities do all types of confidential research. Consider the bastion of liberal free speech, the University of California at Berkeley, which my sister, who teaches there, calls “Bezerkeley.” This leftie outpost just happens to be the leading research agency for most of this country’s nuclear weapons – some 65 designated types – and has been for the past six decades. When I was visiting out West a couple of years ago, I was amazed that Berkeley was very afraid it would lose the federal weapons research to the University of Texas. As it turns out, the fears were groundless.
So what’s the big deal at VCU? For one thing, after the Times published its story on May 22, Trani, VCU, the Richmond elite and the local press assumed an us-against-them, circle-the-wagons wagons approach that made them all look like a bunch of yahoos who just tumbled off a turnip truck. Even our esteemed Jim Bacon, who otherwise has done a fine job in reviving the business channel of Richmond.com, fell victim to knee-jerk parochialism by opining against the big bad New York Times instead of praising it for doing work that Richmond’s disgraceful and insular hometown rag should be doing.
Trani botched the job by not talking to the Times reporter, and then coming out with nonsense that these contracts are somehow significantly different than “standard” research. As far as I can tell, both types of research can have contract agreements calling for the proprietor to review any research papers the academics might prepare by a specific deadline. In both types, the researchers get to publish papers about the research.
I spoke with Jonathan Knight, director of academic freedom and tenure, at the American Association of University Professors, one of the most influential faculty lobbies in Washington. Despite Trani’s assertion, Knight says that there really aren’t any differences regarding academic freedom between the two types of contracts. In either type, “the company has the right to first review from 30 to 60 days before it is published,” he says. In the Philip Morris case, that deadline has been extended to 120 days because there are several of these so-far unnamed third parties and they need to check the paper over for confidential data.
What Knight finds woefully wrong is VCU agreeing to contract language that forbids any discussion of the contracts. Knight says that “VCU went in quite a different direction by preventing the faculty or administrators from saying anything about the contract without prior permission from Philip Morris.”
So, rather than having a massive erosion of academic freedom — the research will be published anyway — it seems we have a situation where a less prestigious state school anxious for corporate funding agreed to contract language that a more prestigious institution might have refused on principle.
Speaking of principle, some 15 notable universities have sworn off tobacco money of any kind. VCU is not one of them. But dealing with the likes of Philip Morris is always going to cause problems for VCU because the school is stuck with its bedfellow. Philip Morris’s $350 million research center is the centerpiece of the highly-touted Virginia Biotechnology Research Park in which VCU badly wants to be a participant. I have always been puzzled over what making cigarettes has to do with improving health through biotechnology, but hey, I wasn’t born and bred in Richmond.
Curiously, Philip Morris has given Duke University , the nations’ 12th largest research institution, a grant of $30 million to research ways to get people to stop smoking. A Philip Morris press release says under terms of the agreement with Duke that Philip Morris has no right to direct or influence how the research is conducted nor can the company limit Duke’s freedom to publish research in any way. Now how come Trani can’t get a deal like that? So much for the hometown advantage.
Indeed, the Philip Morris affair underscores what VCU is and what it isn’t, no matter how much its local boosters try to pump it up. Despite some standout departments, it is still largely a commuter school with a 66 percent acceptance rate. Its students significantly trail more prestigious public schools such the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William & Mary in SAT scores and high school GPAs. VCU’s R&D is a tiny $277 million although the total in the state is really nothing to brag about.
Trani has been allowed to elevate himself to a position of influence that goes far beyond the intrinsic worth of his university. And he seems to have a thin skin when it comes to the national media. Let’s not forget that he changed the name of the Medical College of Virginia to “VCU Medical School” because USA Today got MCV mixed up with U.Va.’s medical school. How come Trani gets away with such nonsense?
The reason is that he’s allowed to and it is costing all of us who live in the Richmond area. Whether Trani and his backers want to admit it or not, the Philip Morris incident has moved Richmond’s national image several points down the scale. Chalk it up to the locals’ eternal and stubborn obsequiousness to the evil weed. Add to it the snooty, chip-on-your-shoulder parochialism that is just so, well, “Richmond.”