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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The next university president: A Republican tobacco attorney?

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Opinions

ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

In spite of the fact that President Jehuda Reinharz resigned over three months ago, we know little actual information about the process for choosing the next president. We do not know where the search committee stands in its process, and we do not have a list of the candidates currently under consideration. In fact, thus far, we have only heard one name mentioned as a possible replacement: board of trustees member Meyer Koplow, who stepped down as chairman of the search committee after his nomination for the presidency. This early publicity gives Koplow an automatic advantage for the moment, as his is the lone name associated with the empty position. But cursory research into Koplow’s background shows him to be fundamentally at odds with the ideals of Louis Brandeis, and his presidency is a terrifying prospect.

Meyer Koplow’s main notability came as a lawyer for tobacco giant Philip Morris (now Altria). Koplow was one of the principle attorneys responsible for negotiating the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, in which the four largest tobacco companies struck a deal with 46 state attorneys general. Under the terms of the deal, the tobacco companies made certain major concessions, such as refraining from advertising directly to minors and funding anti-tobacco efforts. In return, the states agreed to end the legal pursuit of compensation for health costs associated with tobacco use. At the time, anti-smoking groups hailed the settlement as a victory, and the tobacco companies used it as evidence that they were far from the soulless, murderous monoliths the public perceived them as.

But the settlement may have been far more of a victory for the companies than it initially seemed. Certainly it did little good for the public welfare: a 2001 study by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the settlement “appears to have had little effect on cigarette advertising in magazines and on the exposure of young people to these advertisements.” Furthermore, according to American Cancer Society CEO John Seffrin, “despite a commitment by the states to use proceeds from the settlement to combat tobacco use, states have unfortunately devoted the funds to other priorities at the same time the tobacco industry has increased spending on marketing and promotions.” So the settlement barred states from pursuing the tobacco companies further, while having scarce actual effect on their practices.

Amidst all of this, Koplow was a faithful crusader for Philip Morris. A New York Times article from the time reports on Koplow’s advocacy efforts: “Meyer Koplow, a lawyer for the tobacco industry, insisted last week that unless Congress enacted a law that gave tobacco companies considerable protection from damage suits, the cigarette companies would not agree to modify their relentless ad campaigns. Congress cannot stop the ads, Mr. Koplow asserted, because to do so would violate the companies’ right to free speech.”

Koplow’s indifferent disregard for tobacco-related illness and death is alarming enough, but let’s probe further by examining his list of political campaign contributions from over the years. The first striking fact is that Koplow’s donations have overwhelmingly been to Republican candidates. The lucky recipients of checks from Koplow include Jack Ryan, the 2004 Illinois senatorial candidate who was forced to withdraw from the race after divorce papers revealed that he had pressured his wife to have public intercourse at sex clubs. The Friends of Joe Lieberman fund received $2,100, and the New York Republican County Committee received $1,000. Also featured is South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who received $2,000 from Koplow. DeMint is one of the most colorful and conservative Republicans in the Senate. He opposes a woman’s right to an abortion under all circumstances, including rape and incest. DeMint placed a hold on the confirmation President Obama’s nominee for Transportation Security Administration administrator, purely out of his concern that the new administrator might allow TSA workers to unionize (This, of course, left America’s security apparatus without leadership during the Christmas Day bombing attempt). Further, DeMint classics include stalling President Bush’s global AIDS initiative, giving support to and meeting with the illegitimate military government of Honduras in deliberate defiance of the U.S. stance on the coup and claiming that reforming healthcare endangers the troops in Afghanistan.

All of this may seem like guilt by association. After all, Koplow is not actually the one who took Jeri Ryan to a sex club, or castrated the TSA in a time of crisis. But money fuels politics, and Meyer Koplow’s money fuels Jim DeMint’s politics. DeMint is only able to continue to undermine America’s security thanks to generous donations like Koplow’s.

Of course, I don’t know how strongly Koplow’s nomination will be considered. His recusal may have given him publicity, but it doesn’t necessarily give him credibility with the decision-makers. But as a board insider, and especially as the former head of the search committee itself, he would seem to have certain natural advantages. It is our responsibility as students committed to Justice Brandeis’ ideals to firmly oppose the progress of Koplow towards the presidency. Brandeis saw big business as a “curse,” and, in fact, left the Republican Party when he believed it had become overrun with corporate interests. He was a champion of the rights of the individual against the corporation, in sharp contrast to Koplow, who in fact sought to crush and poison the individual at the hands of one of the largest companies in the United States. So while Koplow’s nomination may be hailed by the Brandeis Republicans, his presidency would represent a tragic departure from the founding principles of the university, and any group with a social conscience should stand firmly opposed.