More on VCU and the Evil Weed

My last post generated considerable e-mail traffic from members of the VCU community and I learned of a faculty meeting on June 19 to discuss it. Uninvited, I went to it and was allowed to stay if I respected the participants’ desire for confidentiality. Here are excerpts from a post I did for R’Biz on

Virginia Commonwealth University could risk its national reputation among scientific researchers, its ability to win research grant money and its credibility in the local community if it continues with secretive research agreements with Philip Morris USA, a group of VCU faculty discussed at an on-campus meeting yesterday.

Eighteen faculty and researchers came to the meeting at the Student Commons building to discuss concerns stemming from a “research service agreement” that VCU entered into in 2006 with the locally-based tobacco firm. The terms of the agreements forbid discussion about the contracts and require VCU to immediately alert Philip Morris if the news media asks about them.

The existence of the research contracts was revealed in a front page article in the New York Times last month, touching off a controversy about the manner in which VCU conducts research. Since then, VCU has been castigated by experts from other research institutions across the country and among informal blogs linking the VCU community with other scientists. VCU President Eugene Trani says that the agreements are not basic research but are commonly-used consulting agreements. According to Trani, the secrecy and special conditions involved with the contracts are necessary because of proprietary material involved.

At the meeting, the faculty discussed rumors and fears that seem to be abounding at VCU. It was said that faculty and administrators are so fearful of retribution if they question the tobacco contracts that they have been using their cell phones instead of the university phone system to talk about the matter and have been considering trying to file documents to protect themselves with the university human resources department.

A source of frustration for the faculty, they said, is that they cannot get information clarifying Philip Morris’s relationship or future relationship with several major VCU health projects, including the Massey Cancer Center, the Women’s Health Center and the proposed School of Public Health.

Some faculty involved in community outreach noted that if VCU specialists try to promote health in inner cities or other neighborhoods, their credibility could be compromised. It was pointed out, for example, that if VCU workers try to encourage children at Boys and Girls Clubs not to start smoking, they might have a difficult time if it is known that VCU encourages tobacco funding of its research.

Trani has appointed an internal task force to review VCU’s corporate-sponsored research and prepare a report by Oct. 1. The report will later be sent to the school’s Board of Visitors.

One possible point of conflict involves Dr. Francis Macrina, VCU’s vice president for research, who is heading the investigative committee into corporate funding. Faculty members raised questions about possible conflicts of interest within the review committee. They noted that Macrina is head of the review committee although he oversaw the negotiations of the contracts that touched off the corporate funding controversy.

The research service contracts with Philip Morris involve a total of about $284,000 and involve studies of pulmonary disease and wastewater pollution. VCU provided this reporter with copies of the Master Service Agreement under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, but refused to provide specific “task orders” that give details about the actual work to be done.

For more details, see R’Biz in

— Peter Galuszka

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  1. Edmund Avatar

    $284K? That is the extent of the relationship? If so, Trani isn’t good at the cost/benefit on this in terms of reputation and public relations. Ditch PM yesterday.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’d say ditch the folks who have demonstrated they eith don’t know or don’t care about the meaning of conflict of interest and acting against the public interest.

    We don’t need people like this in charge of our publically-funded institutions.

    I cannot believe the GAUL. They put the same guy in charge of the investigation that appears to have been a willing participant.

    toss the lot of them out.. now. and don’t be surprised if their new employers have a familiar face.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, you picked up on the aspect of the VCU task force that most bothers me. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the hen-house! Letting Reseach VP Macrina supervise the investigation means that the task force’s conclusions will be discredited from the get-go. Macrina could be the most honest guy in the world — apparently, he has authored essays on ethics in scientific investigation! — and the anti-tobacco groups would call the integrity of the process into doubt.

    It is no assault on Macrina’s personal integrity to acknowledge that someone else should be in charge of the investigation.

    As someone who would like to see VCU’s research program grow and prosper, hopefully stimulating the growth of a vibrant life sciences industry in Richmond along with it, I believe it is crucial to bend over backwards to keep the process transparent and free of even the appearance of conflicts of interest.

    Philip Morris can be a big contributor to VCU and life science research in Richmond. I don’t believe in treating the company as a pariah. But the Richmond community has to acknowledge that, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Philip Morris is hopelessly tainted. That means putting extra safeguards — firewalls, if you will — into place to make sure its reputation doesn’t leak over.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Jim – I agree.

    There are opportunities for synergistic partnerships…

    ..but as you point out – appearances and perceptions necessitate a scrupulous approach

    .. and I think extremely poor judgment was shown.. and once a reputation is harmed – it’s not easy to unring that bell…

    my view is if poor judgment was shown originally – I’m not sure just how much confidence that I would have ..for the same players to suddenly “get it”.

    See what bothers me is that it appears to me that the same fella who just wrote a book on proper medical research ethics..was directly involved in a questionable ethical relationship with PM.


  5. Anonymous Avatar

    I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above. When my colleagues from NIH heard about the members of President Trani’s task force they were dumbfounded. How could he establish a task force:
    (1) Headed by Dr. Macrina (who himself is at the core of the NY Times allegations and also wrote a book on ethics (yet didn’t see fit to recuse himself from the investigative process);
    (2) composed primarily of individuals who either work directly for Dr. Macrina or work for the individuals who work directly for Dr. Macrina (there may be some reluctance to “find fault” with Dr. Macrina’s actions??); or (3) work directly for SOM Dean Strauss (who is leading another truly laudable VCU collaboration with PM – a $20 mil Women’s Health Research Center, with the core mission of eliminating the very infant health disparities Philip Morris created as they targeted (and continue to target) marketing for cigarette smoking toward the urban African American community in the City of Richmond. Sounds like a great move forward for women’s health – and I’m sure VCU can take pride in leading the way…
    The comments of the NIH representatives to the news above was “If this isn’t a “stacked” committee, I don’t know what is!” They thought they had seen it all before, but clearly they were wrong!”.
    And sadly… I agree. Even if some task force members are well intentioned, to those of us who live in the real world (outside the narrow confines of space occupied by VCU leadership), whatever conclusions the task force comes to, the validity and sincerity of their statements will be questioned from the start. Such flawed and biased efforts will do nothing to improve VCU’s already tainted reputation. Instead, they are likely to do little more than add to the decline of VCU’s standing among other academic institutions and medical centers.
    I encourage VCU leadership to rethink their plan – it is not too late to take the right path and clear the smoke that surrounds the university these days!

  6. Jason Roop Avatar
    Jason Roop

    Jim: I thought it was interesting that you’d publish this story on your site given your criticism of Style Weekly’s story. In your own words (substitute Peter Galuszka of Bacon’s Rebellion for Style Weekly and I can’t find the difference):

    Bacon’s spin: In sum, [Peter Galuszka of Bacon’s Rebellion) has built a story upon the say-so of a half-dozen VCU employees who refuse to identify themselves in print even though (a) they have already “spoken out,” presumably in public, and presumably in a VCU setting where their identities are known, otherwise why would they fear reprisals, and (b) they indicate a possible willingness to affix their signatures to documents affirming their concerns about VCU research-contract policy. Does this all add up?
    Furthermore, other than that one example, [Peter Galuszka of Bacon’s Rebellion] offers no evidence to suggest that the fears are well grounded. … [Peter Galuszka of Bacon’s Rebellion doesn’t] indicate anywhere in the article that he made any effort to establish their identities or otherwise confirm the charge. As it stands right now, the allegation is nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor based upon an anonymous source. …

    You get the idea.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    To Jason –
    I would answer your previous comment with a response to the previous Bacon’s Rebellion piece about VCU faculty wishing to remain anonymous:
    “I think the Style reporter (Dovi) had more ‘facts’ to confirm his Style Weekly article than the Richmond Times Dispatch reporter who cited only those individuals at VCU against whom allegations were made by the NY Times. Interestingly, (the Bacon’s Rebellion author) seems unconcerned about this “slanted” piece of RTD journalism which came from a newspaper whose publisher (Thomas Silvestri) recently received one of fourteen awards given by VCU to its “most accomplished alumni”… Unbiased journalism at its very best??? And I would (ask the author of the Bacon’s Rebellion piece) — why would someone “doubt” the veracity of faculty fears when they involve a University that has violated its own policies and procedures (as reported by the NY Times), and then has the audacity to form a committee chaired by the very person (Macrina) against whom those NY Times allegations were made), to investigate the VCU policies and procedures being questionned (along with many VCU faculty who report directly to either Dr. Macrina or Dean Strauss (head of the Women’s Health Center to be funded by Phillip Morris)… Hmmm. Seems like (Bacon’s Rebellion author) is following up on the wrong story…. and that there’s a lot of smoke hanging in the air around VCU these days. And what’s that saying.. where there’s smoke….???”

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Jason Roop,
    I never criticized the Style Weekly story and in fact had done my own opinion column critical of the Philip Morris USA contracts previously, either before or just after the Style Piece, I can’t remember.
    While I understand why the faculty refused to be identified in my piece, it speaks volumes about the nature of the climate at VCU which is supposedly a haven for academic freedom. I went to college at a liberal, northeastern school while the Vietnam War was on and believe, me, there would have beem no silence or anonymity on an issue such as this.
    As for the Times-Dispatch, that’s a matter for their own journalistic ethics and conscience. My previous column noted that they got truly slammed by the New York Times piece and so too, frankly, did Style Weekly. All I can say was that way back 26 years ago or so when I was a TD reporter on what was then a TD version of an “investigative” team, we pitched a series on Richmond’s links to Big Tobacco and got a resounding “no” from management. Interesting that the Times editorial page provides a letter to the editor outlet for top VCU administrators such as the head of their Engineering School who want to wage a propaganda campaign against the “press” writing about Philip Morris’s perfectly appropriate and typical contracts. Then they quote their own “investigative” reporter as implying that stories like mine and yours are bunk.
    As for Jim Bacon, well, I think he was wrong about that piece about Style’s story. I think his first reaction to the New York Times story was too and said so in my earlier Bacons Rebellion column. But at least he ran the more recent story.
    Given the paucity of real journalism in Richmond, both you and I and anyone else might be better spending our time digging out what is really going on at VCU.

    No one else is going to do it, at least at the local level. The TV stations are more interested in crime and car crashes. Obviously, the RTD isn’t interested either but then, does it matter? They are too busy sinking with their failed cartoon “wrap” gimmicks, contrived Phil Donahue-style town meetings and shrinking subscriptions, ad revenues and Media General stock –$70 to $13.48 in just a couple of years. Phenomenal! Glad I sold all of my shares just after they fired me in 2003.

    Peter Galuszka

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Jason, I think it’s perfectly fair for you to raise the issue of why I published Peter’s story in, even while criticizing Style’s story. On a superficial level, there would appear to be an inconsistency in the way I criticized Style for playing up the fears of retribution on the part of anonymous VCU sources while publishing Peter’s piece, which acknowledged those very same fears.

    I gave that point a lot of thought while working with Peter on his story. Here are what I deem to be the critical distinctions that justified going with Peter’s version:

    (1) Style quoted six anonymous sources with whom the Style reporter was in contact — whether by telephone, email or personal meeting was not made clear. Peter attended a public meeting of eighteen scientists and researchers. The VCU sources weren’t willing to go on the record with the press, but at least they were willing to voice their concerns in a public venue.

    (2) More to the point, the primary thrust of the Style piece was that VCU staff members feared retribution for expressing their opinions about the VCU-Philip Morris contracts. As the story started out: “Virginia Commonwealth University researchers and faculty who fear reprisal for speaking out against a secret smoke-filled-room research agreement between the school and Philip Morris USA are taking extraordinary steps to protect themselves.”

    By contrast, in Peter’s R’Biz piece, the mention of those fears were incidental to the main point of the story, which was that the Philip Morris contracts put VCU’s academic reputation at risk. Peter mentioned the faculty fears in the fifth and sixth paragraphs only to explain why he could not name the participants of the meeting: They wouldn’t let him in if he did not agree to their condition, and they didn’t want to be quoted because they were afraid of the VCU administration. (Also, some noted that they wanted to work out their issues internally before going to the press.) After that, Peter did not return to the issue.

    (3) Finally, Peter’s R’Biz article did not contain what I regard to be unsubstantiated and potentially misleading information. The Style article quoted a source as saying, “‘Part of the paranoia comes from seeing what already has come to pass,’ one high-level researcher on federal grant projects says of senior people at VCU who have left because of the Philip Morris deal.”

    The phrase “the Philip Morris deal” presumably refers to the VCU-Philip Morris contracts. In the context of the story, it cannot mean anything else. As far as I know, no “senior people” have yet left VCU because of those contracts, although some lower level people say they might. Peter’s investigations turned up one senior VCU official whose departure was linked to the coming of the Philip Morris research center to the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, but that was a few years ago, and not related in any way to the current controversy.

    In my opinion, there is a lot of loose, unsubstantiated talk going on. Opponents of the VCU-Philip Morris contracts raise some valid points that the Richmond community needs to think about. (See my comments above.) But they also have disseminated a lot of misinformation, some of which is potentially defamatory. It is the journalist’s job to separate the wheat from the chaff. Peter has done that. I stand by his story.

    But I do give Style credit for at least tackling the VCU-Philip Morris story. By contrast, the Times-Dispatch has done virtually nothing. The main piece it ran in response to the original New York Times article seemed to be a regurgitation of what the reporter was told by VP Research Francis Macrina. I think those points were relevant to the story (and it was shameful that the New York Times left them out). But the T-D story was as biased in its own way as the NY Times’.

    So, I hope Style stays on the story. If you unearth relevant new information, I will applaud you. If you feed unfounded suspicions and fears, I’ll let you hear about it.

  10. Jason Roop Avatar
    Jason Roop


    I appreciate the positive comments you included about our reporting. Thank you.

    I stand by my original posting, however, and disagree that my points were “superficial” about the blog’s double-standard. I also think your attempt at explaining why the stories are somehow different (with the possible exception of No. 3) is mostly hair-splitting.

    I appreciate that you’ve published Peter’s story. More reporting on the issue by local news media like ours needs to be done! Wee haven’t finished …

    I also urge you to look aggressively at both the VCU relationship with Philip Morris and take a more critical look at the results of the Biotech Park.


  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Please note that senior administrators at VCU have also publicly stated that State government officials (from mayor to governor) have not only supported the VCU-PM “collaborations” (in particular the proposed “$20 mil Women’s Health Center) and it should be noted that I use both the terms “collaboration” and “women’s health” VERY loosely) – but they have actively worked to foster, support and encourage that they come to pass. I believe that in the case of our Governor, such actions (even the simple act of condoning a VCU-PM proposal to fund a $20 mil women’s health center to eliminate health disparities caused by tobacco use) would be in direct conflict with his position on other issues. I encourage all of you to pursue the statements VCU leadership has made — as aggressively as you can – because if in fact our elected officials are actively supporting tobacco-company sponsored research focused on women’s health and health disparities — through academic university medical centers (particularly centers where the University President also sits on the corporate board for the tobacco companies and owns substantial shares of stock in their corporation) – there is a REAL problem with our State Government and VA citizens have a right to know that this is happening — specifically, the manner in which their tax dollars are being spent! As the Style writer said in today’s article – 49 other states “are watching!”

  12. Sharlotte Avatar

    Hi, you are talking about Phillip Morris. It is famous all over the world as a tobacco company. Detailed information about Phillip Morris you may find on the web site of the company. But there is one more rather important aspect – customers’ reviews. is the right place to look for truthful reports.

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