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Robert Soave: Coleman's smoking gun

BY ROBERT SOAVE

Published April 5, 2010

“The policy was made by the president. No one knows how this decision was made.” This was the comically honest response of Ken Warner, dean of the School of Public Health, to the question of who proposed the campus-wide smoking ban, according to The Michigan Daily.

It’s clear, then, that University President Mary Sue Coleman is the architect of the Smoke-Free Initiative, which will take effect in July of 2011. The initiative will prohibit smoking on all outdoor University property. Coleman and University administrators have been embarrassingly vague about why such a ban is necessary. Instead, they keep insisting that the smoking ban will improve public health.

Interestingly enough, the smoking ban may also improve Coleman’s salary.

That’s because Coleman isn’t just a college president. In her spare time, she moonlights as a businesswoman, sitting on the board of directors for major pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, as well as the Meredith Corporation, a magazine publisher. According to Forbes.com, her position at Johnson & Johnson netted her an income of $229,000 last year.

Among Johnson & Johnson’s many marketed brands are smoking cessation products like Nicorette and Nicoderm — products that University smokers will feel encouraged to use once smoking becomes unwelcome on campus in July 2011. Indeed, administrators have already announced that smoking cessation products may be offered at discounted prices to students who are trying to quit.

Obviously, this is a sizeable conflict of interest for Coleman. Even if her Johnson & Johnson salary didn’t actively influence her decision to ban smoking, it makes it substantially harder to take her at her word that the University needs this ban — especially when representatives of her administration can’t come up with a specific reason for it.

But Coleman’s corporate troubles run deeper than this. As the University’s College Libertarians pointed out in a press release this weekend, Johnson & Johnson has an affiliated non-profit group, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which lobbies for the adoption of certain health-related policies through research and grant money. RWJF is notoriously anti-smoking, as its website explains: “At the state and community level, we support advocacy for proven tobacco control measures, such as smoke-free air laws, funding of prevention and cessation programs and increases in tobacco taxes.”

While it’s no surprise that RWJF would fight for laws that restrict smoking and lead to increased use of Johnson & Johnson products, such an aggressive lobbying force should not hold financial sway over the president of a public university. Students, faculty and staff must be able to trust that their president is working in the best interests of the University community, not a profit-motivated corporation. Even the perception of a conflict of interest is embarrassing for this institution.

Seen in this light, some of Coleman’s other policy positions make more sense, too. She has adamantly refused to sign the Amethyst Initiative, a petition asking Congress to take up the issue of whether the current drinking age should be lowered in accordance with mounting evidence in favor of such a change. Though 135 college presidents have signed the initiative, Coleman won't — a baffling position, since the initiative only calls for a discussion, not a change. As the president of a research university, Coleman can’t actually believe that the current drinking age is a matter that shouldn’t even be debated.

But in addition to its anti-smoking policies, RWJF has been accused by the Center for Consumer Freedom of holding attitudes toward alcohol consumption that are borderline prohibitionist. Among its policy positions, RWJF intransigently supports keeping the drinking age at 21. Coleman’s seemingly baseless opposition to the Amethyst Initiative makes a lot more sense if it’s because she has corporate overlords at J & J breathing down her neck.

Coleman’s situation, then, is a fundamental betrayal of the values of a public university — whether she’s being influenced or not. She should demonstrate that her true commitment is to the integrity of the University and resign her corporate positions, donate her salaries or, at the very least, reverse the upcoming smoking ban.

And when Ladies’ Home Journal – published by the Meredith Corporation, which paid Coleman $137,000 last year – becomes required reading in English 125 classes, that’s when we’ll really know Coleman’s corporate ties are influencing her.

Robert Soave was the Daily's editorial page editor in 2009. He can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu.