Harvard University receives a $350 million windfall that its School of Public Health will use to ‘tackle tough health challenges.’ Like getting people to consider eating meat to be the problem.

One argument anti-industry activists fall back on so often that they consider it to be “conventional wisdom” is a version of following statement: “We’re fighting against giant corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal. That’s why we have to ______________ [fill in the blank: “scream and yell, denounce our foes, destroy property, commit vandalism,” etc.]

Commentary:  Multi-million dollar messageIt’s the old “ends justify the means” argument, and the animal rights/vegetarian/organic proponents are certainly not the only groups who try to roll out that justification.

But here’s a piece of news that refutes the first part of that positioning: Harvard University has just announced the receipt of a $350 million gift from the Morningside Foundation in Newton, Mass., ostensibly to fund the Harvard School of Public Health so they can “tackle the world’s toughest health challenges,” according to a news release from the university.

The donation was part of the university’s $6.5 billion Harvard Campaign. That’s right: $6.5 billion. The Morningside Foundation gift is the largest in the university's history.

“The field of public health drives discoveries that lead to healthier, longer, more productive lives,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “This extraordinary gift from the Chan family will enable Harvard’s School of Public Health to tackle intractable health problems and to translate rigorous research into action and policy worldwide. The Chan family’s generosity sends a signal to the world: This is the public health moment. We are honored by this gift. It will inspire a new generation of public health leaders.”

Gerald Chan, a director of The Morningside Foundation who received Master’s and Doctoral degrees from HSPH in the 1970s, said his father was a “staunch supporter of education.”

“I want to express how pleased we are that the legacy of our late father can be honored by this gift to HSPH,” Chan said. “He was a generous man who was a staunch supporter of education. He also wanted to support scientific research to alleviate human suffering.”

Okay, all well and good. Philanthropy on this kind of scale is to be commended, and there is honor in leaving such a fortune to a university that ostensibly will use it to educate our citizenry. And the size of the gift is astounding, and thus its impact will also be substantial. The question is, what exactly will Harvard do with that windfall? Will it go to pay professors and subsidize tuition and purchase computers and books and other instructional tools?

Not necessarily.

According to a Harvard Gazette article, the money will be spent in researching four areas:

  • Harmful physical and social environments, such as those resulting from tobacco use, gun violence and pollution
  • Poverty and humanitarian crises, such as those stemming from war and natural disasters
  • Failing healthcare systems around the world
  • Pandemics, such as malaria, Ebola, cancer, diabetes and obesity

It’s that last one that is potentially troubling.

Old ones, new ones, same old same old

David Hunter, the Vincent Gregory Professor in Cancer Prevention and the Harvard School of Public Health’s dean for academic affairs, noted that the “global pandemics” he foresees to be the focus of research undertaken with proceeds from the Morningside Foundation gift will include “old ailments, such as malaria” (which still kills hundreds of thousands annually), “new ones, such as AIDS, SARS and Ebola” and diseases and conditions related to lifestyle, which includes the aforementioned obesity and diabetes.

In that arena, one focus of funding will be the research of Walter Willett, the Fredrick Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, who is analyzing data from the longitudinal Nurses’ Health Study and related surveys — which, the article noted, “shines a bright light on diet and nutrition.”

Now, what do you think that “bright light” is going to reveal?

“Our research primarily involves the investigation of dietary factors, using epidemiologic approaches, in the cause and prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other important conditions,” Willett’s official faculty web page noted. “As examples of the relationships we have studied, we have described a positive association between animal fat and red meat consumption and risk of colon cancer.”

Get ready for lots more studies detailing those “positive associations.”

Here’s one more concern. David Hunter, Harvard’s Vincent Gregory Professor in Cancer Prevention and the HSPH dean for academic affairs, told the Harvard Gazette that another major research focus for this windfall will be “the ills related to physical and social environments, as well as environmental issues such as air and water pollution.”

Ask yourself: When it comes to air and water pollution, who’s Public Enemy No.1 these days? Not the oil industry, which is the real culprit. No, it’s ranchers and feeders and farmers who are poisoning the planet, according to animal and vegetarian activists, and not a single news release, video clip or talk show appearance by goes by without them chanting the mantra that, “If we’d just stop eating meat, we could save the world.”

Of course, Harvard officials were quick to state that it’s “expected” HSPH will also use this nine-figure bankroll they received to increase its support for “qualified students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Just so you know: The cost of attending Harvard is $59,950 for tuition, room, board and fees — per year.

How many qualified students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will be funded at $240,000 apiece for a bachelor’s degree is open to speculation.

But one thing is clear: The whining from activists that “their side” has no money, no clout, no leverage to “fight back” on the issues of diet, health and environmental issues just got a whole lot less credible.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.