Introduction by Croakey: The decision by the University of Sydney to award an honorary doctorate to Nick Greiner has drawn the ire of public health advocates and some of the university’s own academics, due to his former role as a board member and chair of a tobacco company.
Two academics associated with the School of Public Health, Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman and Associate Professor Becky Freeman, Senior Lecturer, have publicly criticised the decision, with Freeman pointing out that Greiner’s association with the University has attracted controversy in the past.
The Australian Council on Smoking and Health (ACOSH) told Croakey that it is deeply disturbed by this decision by the University of Sydney. “Smoking causes more than eight million premature and preventable deaths each year globally, and it is disgraceful that Nick Greiner, who has made a significant contribution to the tobacco industry in Australia, has been recognised in this way,” said ACOSH Chief Executive, Maurice Swanson.
However, the university has defended its decision, arguing that the award was made in recognition of Greiner’s achievements in the business and political worlds and does not reflect support from the university for his role within the tobacco industry.
A University of Sydney spokesperson provided Croakey with the following statement:
Mr Greiner was awarded with an honorary Doctor of Business for his significant contributions in the fields of government and business over three decades. This was in no way intended to endorse his association with British and American Tobacco, and we stand against those companies and organisations that continue to promote the use of tobacco.
We remain committed to providing a safe and healthy learning and working environment, as outlined in our robust Smoke-free Environment Policy. This includes a long-standing decision to not accept funding or sponsorship from the tobacco and e-cigarette industries.”
In an email to Chapman, Mark Scott AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, and Professor Robyn Ward, Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor Medicine and Health, wrote that the honorary doctorate was awarded to Greiner for his “significant and wide-ranging achievements in business and politics” and was “in no way intended to endorse his association with British and American Tobacco”.
Scott and Ward also reiterated the opposition of the University of Sydney to companies and organisations that continue to promote the use of tobacco.
Croakey approached The university’s School of Public Health and the Public Health Association of Australia for comment, but each declined to comment on this issue. Greiner was also invited to respond to the concerns raised, but did not reply to Croakey’s query.
Below, Chapman argues that this award is inconsistent with the University of Sydney’s policy prohibiting students and staff from receiving support from the tobacco industry and is out of step with international practices in this area. This article first appeared on Chapman’s blog and is re-posted here with permission.
Simon Chapman writes:
My University has awarded former NSW premier Nick Greiner an honorary Doctor of Business (honoris causa) during a ceremony held in New York on 8 October, presided over by the University’s Vice-Chancellor and university President, Professor Mark Scott AO.
“Across business and politics, Nick’s achievements are remarkable,” said Professor Scott. “Throughout his illustrious career, he has served the nation and helped the community through his work in policy and his environmental efforts. He continues to influence the next generation of leaders, the future of business and the important relationship between Australia and the United States.”
The University of Sydney’s website noted that “Mr Greiner’s achievements in business over the last 30 years have been significant. He has served as Chair or Deputy Chair of organisations including Harper & Row (Australasia), Bradken, Citigroup (Australia), Coles Myer Ltd, Rothschild (Australia), Stockland Trust, QBE Insurance and Castle Harlan Australian Mezzanine. In addition, he was Chairman of Infrastructure NSW and the European Australian Business Council.”
Significant in its absence here is that Greiner was also a board member and chair of the tobacco company WD & HO Wills (later amalgamated with Rothmans to become British American Tobacco Australia – BATA).
Greiner’s own website includes his BATA role, so it seems inconceivable that the University was unaware of this and has deliberately air-brushed Greiner’s tobacco history from its decision and communications.
In 2003, I led a group of academics and health and medical students in protesting the Greiner appointment, then chairman of BATA, to chair Sydney University’s graduate school of government. One senior paediatrician was so incensed he threatened to resign if the appointment went ahead.
I persuaded the University Senate to overturn the appointment. They agreed with me and Greiner resigned from the role. I wrote a detailed account of how this occurred as a case study in public health advocacy at the end of this paper in the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
At the time, the then University Chancellor Kim Santow AO wrote to me that Griener’s appointment had nothing to do with his tobacco industry role but was all about his distinguished career in politics and public administration. This was a version of the Jeckyll and Hyde defense: the upstanding citizen by day, who strenuously denies his evening persona has any relevance to his overall reputation.
In 1982, Sydney University was the world’s first University to formally adopt a policy whereby neither the university, nor any staff member or student could accept any form of support, grant or scholarship from a tobacco company. This was subsequently strengthened in amendments.
Careers fairs at the University have long excluded tobacco companies from pitching employment to students. Universities around the world have followed suit, including Harvard and the London School of Economics.
When Nicola Roxon, the former Australian Health Minister and Attorney General was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws in 2019, the then Vice Chancellor Michael Spence AC noted that:
…the honour was also a fitting continuation of the University’s role in tobacco control. The University of Sydney has a long history of engagement in tobacco control and was the world’s first university to implement a policy preventing staff and students from accepting grants from tobacco companies. This has been emulated by nearly all Australian universities and many others around the world.
At the University of Sydney, we share Ms Roxon’s genuine desire to build a better, healthier future for the world and we are so proud when our world-class research is used by policymakers to bring about real change.”
Greiner’s parting shot at the University in 2003 was to say that “his departure points to broader problems in the university, including mismanagement”.
“It’s the ultimate sort of inmates-in-charge-of-the-asylum situation and I just didn’t think it was worth the hassle,” he said.
To my knowledge, Greiner has never expressed a syllable of regret about his role with BATA. This is important. History records many prominent people who have gone out of their way to express remorse and regret about dark periods or events in their past.
Civil society has codified five steps for contrition that we expect people to exhibit before society turns the page:
Greiner openly admits he worked at the very peak of a tobacco company, with his eyes wide open. But he has never taken the next four steps. Draw your own conclusions.
It has been decades since any tobacco executive has been awarded a civic honour like an Order of Australia or knighthood. For such a thing to happen today would be like a rabid dog winning London Crufts dog show.
The World Health Organization’s historic Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has been ratified by 181 nations. Its Article 5.3 precludes governments from any engagement with the industry. Two in three of the tobacco industry’s most addicted, “loyal” smokers die from tobacco caused disease. There are light years between that toll and that attributed to any other industry.
Sydney University’s gesture to Greiner might simply be a case of failed corporate memory in a new administration. Perhaps there is no one on the present Senate which would have signed off on the award who is aware of the history. Or perhaps there is and they didn’t care.
But the omission of his tobacco links from the university statement suggests this was done in full awareness. This is very regrettable.
See here for Croakey’s archive of stories on tobacco control