Letters

  • The Kept University

    Sound the Alar(m)

    Mary Graham's statement "It was later agreed that the risk of cancer from Alar-sprayed apples was minimal" ("Regulation by Shaming," April Atlantic) is an example of how effective corporate disinformation can be. The Environmental Protection Agency does not casually classify a chemical as a carcinogen and ban it for all food uses, as it did Alar.

    In food processing, Alar breaks down to a by-product called unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine, or UDMH. In 1985 the EPA concluded that Alar and UDMH might be causing as many as 100 cancers per million people exposed to it in their diet for a lifetime. That's 100 times the human health hazard considered acceptable by EPA standards. In 1990 the apple and chemical industries filed a libel lawsuit against those who had publicized Alar's dangers. The apple industry lost the lawsuit; the court concluded that the scientific case against Alar was sound. Nonetheless, the campaign of disinformation continues, because the chemical, agribusiness, and food industries were so scared.

    In 1996 Elliot Negin wrote an article for the Columbia Journalism Review titled "The Alar 'Scare' Was for Real." Negin found that the facts had been misrepresented by a wide variety of news media, from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post to Knight-Ridder and the Newhouse News Service. (The American Council on Science and Health, incidentally, is largely funded by the chemical industry. Uniroyal, which manufactures Alar, is one of its funders. This council was the source for a misstatement by Jane Brody about Alar in The New York Times on August 18, 1998. The Times printed a correction on September 13, 1998.) Thus Graham has plenty of company. It is ironic, though, that her error appeared in an article purporting to show that industry is more and more likely to confess the truth voluntarily. You have to watch carefully when industry is shuffling those cards.

    Olivia Eielson

    In her article on shaming companies into mending their ways, Mary Graham states as a fact: "Many apples were sprayed with Alar, a growth regulator that contained small amounts of a carcinogen." If Graham can produce a published toxicology study proving that Alar did, indeed, contain a carcinogen in any amount, I would very much like to know that citation. If not, both author and editor owe an apology to your readers and to the unfortunate apple growers bankrupted by such statements.

    W. Grierson

    Mary Graham replies:

    The Alar controversy, which obviously continues, illustrates the power that even fragmentary disclosure of information has to influence corporate actions. It does not illustrate the power of corporate disinformation, as Olivia Eielson suggests. Alar, widely used on apples as a growth regulator, was voluntarily removed from the market by its manufacturer in 1989, not because of any government action but because of a huge public outcry that followed a report on the television show 60 Minutes. The show summarized a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council that concluded that a by-product of Alar was a carcinogen. The NRDC estimated that about one preschool child in 4,200 could get cancer if exposed to Alar before age seven. Apple sales plummeted, and some school districts removed apples from school lunch menus. Uniroyal, Alar's manufacturer, decided to take it off the market. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated at the time that the risk of cancer from Alar was one twenty-fifth as high as the NRDC reported, or about nine in a million. After further studies the EPA estimated that the risk was less than half that-about four in a million. Instead of stating that risks from the chemical were later found to be "minimal," an imprecise term, perhaps I should have said that risks were later found to be much lower than originally estimated.

    Catching War Criminals

    Chuck Sudetic's article "The Reluctant Gendarme" (April Atlantic) is a stream of gratuitous rumors and accusations, founded on the jaded stereotype of an imaginary pro-Serb bias in the French military, and an outrage to France, which has lost seventy nationals in the service of peace in Bosnia. France was the second largest contributor to the NATO air strikes in Kosovo, and has sent 5,200 soldiers to one of the most difficult zones in Kosovo, where a number of them have been wounded as the price of their commitment to peace and their firm opposition to extremists on both sides.

    The accusations are pure nonsense, both technically and politically -- technically because decisions to arrest war criminals are the responsibility of the SFOR commander and SACEUR, and policy does not change according to sectors or according to the various SFOR contingents; politically because the French authorities at the highest levels have repeatedly emphasized their firm resolve to ensure that presumed war criminals are tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

    Contrary to Sudetic's allegations, French forces are actively contributing to the arrest of presumed war criminals. They have so far arrested six wanted criminals -- not two, as stated in the article. On April 3 French troops arrested Momcilo Krajisnik, "the highest-ranking person indicted for war crimes" apprehended so far in Bosnia, according to NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson. French President Jacques Chirac, speaking during a recent visit to ICTY headquarters in The Hague, once again reaffirmed France's determination to help arrest wanted individuals, particularly Radovan Karadzic. As for Kosovo, an exemplary investigation led by French gendarmes resulted in the first arrest of alleged war criminals by the allies.

    Contrary to what Sudetic implies, both the present and former chief prosecutors of the tribunal, Carla Del Ponte and Louise Arbour, have publicly expressed satisfaction with the excellent working relationship between France and the ICTY.

    François Delattre

    Chuck Sudetic replies:

    François Delattre skips over more than a few facts when he erroneously claims that the French army has arrested six Bosnians indicted for war crimes. Here's a list of everyone taken into custody in the French sector of Bosnia to date: The first was Dragoljub Kunarac. He surrendered voluntarily on March 4, 1998. I did not tally this action as a French arrest because, according to my sources at NATO and elsewhere, the French army declined to take him in before clearing it with the Bosnian Serb police and political leadership. The next two arrests claimed by the French were of Milorad Krnojelac (June 15, 1998) and Radomir Kovac (August 2, 1999). These men were taken in by German special forces in operations in which the French played only peripheral roles. My NATO sources say that after Kovac's arrest French soldiers angrily went to the Germans and told them to stop showing them up. "The Reluctant Gendarme" correctly credits the French army with the next two arrests -- the only ones carried out before the article's publication deadline. The first Serb the French arrested was Zoran Vukovic (December 23, 1999); the operation took place a week after the French government found out that The Atlantic had embarrassing information about what was fueling the anger within NATO over Paris's reluctance to arrest war criminals. The next French arrest was of Mitar Vasiljevic (January 25, 2000); it was counterproductive, because it tipped off one of Bosnia's most notorious killers, Milan Lukic, to the fact that he had been indicted. Lukic hasn't been heard from since. Finally, the arrest of Momcilo Krajisnik (April 3, 2000) -- which signaled a radical change in French policy -- came several weeks after "The Reluctant Gendarme" was published. Journalists covering the Krajisnik arrest asked officials of the United Nations war-crimes tribunal in The Hague why Paris had changed its attitude. The officials handed them photocopies of "The Reluctant Gendarme," smiled, and said the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, had held a frank discussion with President Jacques Chirac.

    As for the pro-Serb bias among French army officers, which dates back to World War I, I quote Georges-Marie Chenu, a lecturer on the Balkans at France's equivalent of the War College: "For them, the Serbs are good even if they are doing bad."

    Pickup Basketball

    I read with great interest and excitement Timothy Harper's article "The Best Pickup-Basketball Player in America" (April Atlantic). I, too, am a fifty-year-old professional who is passionate about -- my wife would say obsessed with -- the game of basketball. Thank you for sharing Allan Dalton's remarkable story with me.

    Lawrence M. Baill

    I am the "best" pickup-basketball player in America, and I invite Allan Dalton to a friendly game or two the next time he is down Pennsylvania way.

    Victor J. Viser

    The Kept University

    The Haas School of Business, at the University of California at Berkeley, is not a business. This distinction is clear to us, but obviously a source of confusion to Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn ("The Kept University," March Atlantic). The major problem with their article is the unsupported insinuation that private financial support from corporations and wealthy donors inevitably corrupts the mission, purpose, and operations of a public university. The authors provide virtually no empirical evidence for their claims. Moreover, the Haas School examples they cite are misleading and inaccurate. For example:

    • The article quotes the student newspaper as describing the Haas School's beautiful new building complex as "plastered with corporate logos." This is inaccurate. Some rooms and spaces are named (no logos) in honor of generous individual and corporate donors, in keeping with a tradition in higher education going back decades, if not centuries. The donors paid for the building, but they have no control over the school's operation.

    • The authors report that the title of the Haas School dean is the BankAmerica dean. True. But they are wrong in hinting, however obliquely, that this implies some control over the school's affairs by the BankAmerica Foundation, which donated $2 million. The money established a discretionary fund to be used by the dean for faculty research and curricular support, and to recruit talented new faculty members.

    • The most preposterous insinuation is that a wealthy benefactor can control choices about curriculum and teaching at the Haas School. The authors imply that a gift from Haas School alumnus and Gap founder Donald Fisher resulted in the teaching of a case study involving The Gap. This is nonsense. Using the Gap case as a teaching aid -- a choice entirely up to the course instructor -- probably had a lot to do with the fact that The Gap is one of the most successful retail clothing chains in the world and well worth studying. If the authors had actually visited the Haas School, they would have quickly discovered that neither its faculty members nor its students feel any constraints on their objectivity and tough-mindedness when it comes to analyzing the business model of The Gap or of any other company, regardless of whether it or its founder has contributed to the school. The article raises the legitimate issue of whether direct corporate sponsorship of academic research might potentially bias research results or the choice of research topics. This is not a new concern. Two decades ago the University of California was the first major research university to require researchers to publicly disclose financial interests in companies sponsoring their work, and those reporting requirements have increased considerably over time. In addition, like all academic research, research done by the Haas faculty (which, incidentally, was ranked No. 1 in the world in a recent survey of business schools published by The Financial Times) is subject to a rigorous process of independent, anonymous peer review at both the proposal-funding and publication stages. The focus, methodology, and conclusions of such research reflect the decisions of Haas faculty members and students, not the decisions of the school's corporate and alumni sponsors.

    Laura D'Andrea Tyson

    Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn reply:

    Nowhere does our article state -- or insinuate -- that private financial support "inevitably corrupts" the mission of a public university. Our article discusses numerous benefits that have resulted from university-industry collaborations since passage of the Bayh-Dole Act. Nevertheless, we do cite extensive empirical evidence showing that industry money can bias research, such as the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by Mildred Cho, which found that 98 percent of papers based on industry-sponsored research reflected favorably on the drugs being examined, as compared with 79 percent of papers based on research not funded by industry.

    Although Dean Tyson is correct that Berkeley's student newspaper, The Daily Californian, which we quoted, was mistaken in reporting that corporate logos appear throughout the Haas School of Business, numerous buildings and rooms at Haas (the Wells Fargo Conference Room, the BankAmerica Forum) are named after corporate donors -- a practice that is understandably controversial at a public university, just as it would be at a public grade school. Yes, Haas is a school, not a business (we never state otherwise). But the increase of corporate-endowed chairs and buildings risks eroding that distinction, by allowing corporate donors to have their names affiliated with our leading public universities. Such affiliations confer immense prestige, even if corporations do not exert any direct control over the schools' affairs.

    Although Dean Tyson seems to believe that Haas students and faculty have no qualms about such ties, there is abundant evidence that many at U.C. Berkeley do. The Daily Californian reported that some people at Berkeley questioned using The Gap in an introductory business course, "because one of Haas' major contributors is Don Fisher, the owner and founder of the Gap, Inc." Also, after Berkeley signed a five-year, $25 million sponsored-research deal with Novartis, a survey of faculty members in the College of Natural Resources revealed that more than half believed it would compromise academic freedom and the university's commitment to research in the name of the public good.

    Finally, it is true that researchers at the University of California must disclose financial ties, but this is because public universities are subject to the public-disclosure laws of their states. Filing a request for such information is inherently cumbersome, however, and at private institutions the information is harder to obtain. A recent study we cited found that a mere 0.5 percent of articles in journals and other scholarly publications include information about the authors' financial ties.


    The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Letters - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 6-11.