The university should reconsider its approach to controversial funding

by Daniel Johnson

Today’s headline story will no doubt divide opinion. On the one hand, some will say that British American Tobacco’s £125,000 donation, although dubious, should not be condemned because the money goes toward a laudable end. Indeed, this has been the response of some students to the donation and will no doubt be the response of many more.

There is little denying that enabling women from Afghanistan to come to Durham to study a masters of their choice, is an initiative worthy of praise. The fact that many alumni donated to this Chancellor’s appeal attests to this. However, when a tobacco company is involved it is certainly not that simple.

Although we can not know for sure what BAT’s rationale behind the donation is, considering the track record of the company it would be reasonable to suggest that they did not necessarily have the best intentions at heart. In the past, this is a company which has added appetite suppressing chemicals to their cigarettes, and has been accused of smuggling on numerous occassions.

However laudable the end, the University would do well to accept that the association with such a tobacco company is in itself damaging to Durham’s reputation as a first-class British university.

Vice-Chancellor Chris Higgins and others frequently refer to the strength of the University’s ethical policy and ethical framework, and how this allows the University to make well-considered decisions on potentially controversial donations.

Part of the issue is transparency. Of course, in some situations it is simply not practical or feasible to publish information on donors. However, considering this case and others in the past, including decisions to take funding from the Iranian government and Kuwait’s Prime Minister (who has been seriously criticised in his own country of late), the University might consider that a little more openness would help them all round.

If anything, most of the anger is likely to come from academics, who, according to a group who contacted Palatinate, feel like the University is going down a path which they find completey objectionable and have not been consulted on. What seems to have particularly angered some academics is that this Chancellor’s Appeal was one which all alumni were asked to donate to, and therefore they feel like their donation has been cheapened by the appeal’s association with BAT.

Palatinate will now be investigating if this is the full extent of Durham’s association with BAT (or any other tobacco companies for that matter), and we sincerely hope that this is it. In the meantime, those at the top of the University’s hierachy should consider the reputational damage that these kinds of donations can have, and the impression that they give.

One student told Palatinate: “The message from the University concerning its gift acceptance policy seems to be that, as long as the price is right, the management is prepared to take money from anyone.”

Many would be excused for gaining this impression from such controversial donations, and in an era of intense public scrutiny and in light of some of the responses to this donation, the University would be wise in accepting that its ethical framework isn’t quite as strong as it once thought.

(P.S. Congratulations to DURFC 1st XV on their big win. Incredible scenes at Twickenham.)

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