Adam Pulver | Unintended Consequences

In a little over a week, members of the Tufts community will join millions of others in the Great American Smokeout, a day sponsored by the American Cancer Society focusing on promoting smoking cessation and raising awareness of the dangers of tobacco use. Despite the fact that we have grown up fully aware of the dangers of smoking and that we are a well-educated bunch, many Tufts students will let this day pass by without thinking twice about their addictive ways.

But in a column about unintended consequences, I am not going to talk about how smoking kills. Rather, I would like to discuss how our University is helping to kill over 400,000 people each year.

This is a tale of two CEOs, both graduates of Tufts University (one in 1976, one in 1967), both extremely successful, with a lot of political power. One was so close to former Vice President Gore he was considered part of the “kitchen cabinet” and close enough to former President Clinton that he was able to get him to write a blurb for the back of his new book. The other was named co-chair of a presidential commission by Clinton and has helped create bipartisan legislation.

One serves as a member of the Office of the President of the Loews Corporation, the holding company of Lorillard, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world and is a multibillionaire. The other is president and CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Only one of these men will be speaking on campus this November. Guess who?

I would like to say I am surprised by the amount of shameless promotion going on heralding yesterday’s campus visit by Jonathan Tisch, but I am not. I know that money makes the world go round and that people are impressed by it. And although Mr. Tisch’s book has the academic value of my fourth grade paper on “Bridge to Terabithia,” and although most of it was probably actually written by ghostwriter Karl Weber, I can understand the value of bringing a prominent alum to campus who is promoting his book. After all, as the Young Entrepreneurs at Tufts so graciously pointed out last year, students here are considering how they will make their first million.

But the whole story is not being told. Nowhere on any of the promotional materials for the event has Mr. Tisch’s corporate ties been described as anything but CEO of Loews Hotels. In reality, Mr. Tisch’s fame and fortune have been connected to his membership in “the biggest family dynasty in corporate America.” The Tisch family fortune is not based on their hotel success alone.

The Loews Corporation serves as a holding company for CNA Insurance, a major health insurance company, Diamond Offshore Drilling, and Lorillard, a tobacco company that has settled several lawsuits from former employees who have gotten ill from the asbestos formerly contained in Kent cigarettes. Lorillard accounts for 27 percent of the Loews Corporation’s sales.

Few Tufts students have stayed at one of the twenty existing Loews Hotels. But how many have smoked a Kent or a Newport? Thanks, Mr. Tisch.

As I write this, I am sitting in the Tisch Library. So I recognize the validity of the argument about biting the hand that feeds you. But I am not saying that Mr. Tisch is a bad person, unworthy of respect, or unaccomplished in anyway. What I am questioning is how we define our heroes and present them to students. Tufts students have a right to be fully informed of where the money and speakers on campus are coming from. How can we avoid conflicts of interest unless we know about them?

I understand the basic dilemma of a university that encourages public service. Public service pays bubkes, so you need donations from the richer alums – some who may not embody the values of community and responsibility – to help educate future public servants. But in doing so, do we sell out on our academic and moral integrity? Should we fear biting the hand that feeds us?

To the University’s credit, it was one of the first private universities to divest its tobacco investments. And it would be wrong to single out Mr. Tisch and Lorillard as the only potentially tainted source of funds for Tufts. The Nutrition School has been publicly criticized for its acceptance of Kraft (aka tobacco giant Philip Morris) sponsorship for its nutrition Web site evaluation tool.

The problem pervades American universities; Urban and Environmental Policy Planning Professor Sheldon Krimsky even wrote an entire book last year about the connections between academia and corporate America. But I can not help but wonder, if The Tufts Daily were not an independent paper, would this column be published? Or would we fear the repercussions on the ever-important endowment?

For a university that claims to support intellectualism and public service, this “lecture” was nothing but a self-promoting scam. Sure, Mr. Tisch gives money to some very important charities, and serves on lots of boards (including our own Board of Trustees), and has “contributed” to American political life. But public service is not about the money you give. When you are a billionaire, a few million here or a few million there is not that big of a deal. These donations in and of themselves are not public service. Leaders in public service are first and foremost committed to positive change in society and inspiring others to do the same. Besides encouraging overconsumption and ostentatious behavior, luxury hotels do not make the world a better place. Lorillard tobacco certainly does not either.

Mr. Tisch does not need Tufts students to promote the sale of his book. The nicotine addicts on this campus contribute to his personal fortune enough already. Maybe Matthew Myers (LA ’67) will be the Bernheim-Lyon lecturer next year … But I’m not holding my breath.