Cambridge sends smoke signals

July 19, 1996

More than 3,500 Cambridge University dons will finally decide today whether to accept the controversial gift of Pounds 1.5 million from tobacco giant BAT Industries for a professorship in international relations.

So much rests on the outcome that many leading academics have put their heads above the parapet to reveal their vote. Masters are pitched against masters, professors against professors. Even junior lecturers are saying whether they will vote placet or non placet.

Nearly 350 dons have already expressed support for the donation which, if accepted, will fund a chair to be named after Sir Patrick Sheehy, BAT Industries retired chairman, who played a key role in securing the Royal Commonwealth Society Library for Cambridge.

Those in favour include Lord Runciman, the masters of Clare and Wolfson Colleges and the master-elect of St Catherine's, Lord Eatwell.

Most are backing the donation on pragmatic grounds. One statement, attracting 65 signatures, said that "if it is to be considered that accepting a gift from a donor implies an absence of ethical objections to any of the donor's activities, few donations would be accepted". Another statement, attracting 280 signatures, said that acceptance did not suggest the university was "indifferent to the hazards associated with smoking". Rejection "will inevitably deter other potential donors on whose generosity the university increasingly depends".

Some 60 dons have signed statements opposing the BAT Industries donation. Medical professor Kay Tee Khaw is endorsing the view that: "Cambridge may need a chair of international relations but the cost of this proposal is too great." Sir Michael Atiyah, master of Trinity College, and Sir John Meurig Thomas, master of Peterhouse, are supporting the statement that "the university should not associate with an organisation whose principal product is an addictive carcinogen, whose profits cost millions of lives - disproportionately from underprivileged societies - and whose methods are antithetic to scientific and academic values".

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