lit-cigarette.jpgA few weeks from now, the University of California and Stanford University may both institute across-the-board bans on tobacco-industry research funding, a sign of the latest struggle between academic integrity and university buckraking to play out across higher education.

The proponents of the ban have a simple point: Tobacco companies sell legal products that kill millions of people every year and for decades have distorted scientific research in order to deflect threats to their business. By their logic, universities like Stanford and UC should have nothing to do with them.

Opponents of the ban, however, call it an infringement on “academic freedom” and claim that it will open the door to politically motivated efforts to squelch controversial research. “I am very concerned that we are changing academic policy, a core academic policy, to send a political message,” Stanford president John Hennessy told the faculty senate. Stanford’s provost, John Etchemendy, likewise worries about a “slippery slope,” as he told the San Jose Mercury News:

I receive frequently e-mails from faculty colleagues requesting, in effect, that Stanford faculty not be allowed to do such and such research, accept funding from such and such an organization, publish such and such views using the Stanford name as their affiliation.

Now, no one who cares about universities wants to see them badgered and henpecked by activists of every political persuasion. (Oddly enough, though, the medical schools at both Stanford and the University of California at San Francisco — which would both have the most to lose should such activism gain strength — both support the ban.) Still, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that tobacco money is sui generis so far as objectionable sources of research funding goes, for exactly the reasons the ban proponents suggest.

Other industries — oil, say, or pharmaceuticals or alcoholic beverages — certainly have their critics. But none of them combine quite the toxic mix of lies and lethality that made tobacco companies and their investors rich. It’s hard to see why any institution devoted to the advancement of knowledge and the betterment of public health would want anything to do with them or their money.

Except, of course, that it isn’t really hard at all. Universities are increasingly commercial-minded these days, and it is no more in the interest of someone like John Hennessy — whose own business acumen recently garnered him a front-page profile in the WSJ (subscription required) — to shut down a potential source of funding than it would be for a defense lawyer to turn down a well-heeled but obviously guilty client.

The irony here is that the financial stakes in the scheduled May 17 vote are actually quite low for Stanford, since exactly one professor currently holds a tobacco-funded research grant worth several hundred thousand dollars a year — and that will lapse in June. (At the University of California, by contrast, 19 different grants pull in $15.9 million in tobacco money, according to the Merc.) You’d think that would make it easier to do the right thing. And you would be wrong.