University’s opposition to Amendment 3 should encourage future political action

Washington University has stepped into the political arena this election with their staunch opposition to Amendment 3. The controversial amendment, on the ballot Nov. 8, would raise taxes on cigarette sales by 60 cents in Missouri (the state currently has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the nation, and still would even with the additional increase) in order to set up a fund for early childhood education. Many politicians and health organizations, including both candidates for governor, oppose the amendment due to its connections with “Big Tobacco.” Others argue that tobacco taxes disproportionately affect the poor.

According to an article by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wash. U. has taken issue with the amendment not because of the cigarette tax itself, but because of a provision within it that restricts any revenue of the tax from funding therapies that use stem cells. The University says this restriction could be harmful to stem cell research in general.

In our opinion, the University’s defense of stem cell research is just. Stem cell research has provided scientific advancements that have revolutionized healthcare, including regenerative organ treatments.

However, it is also clear that the primary reason for Wash. U.’s opposition to Amendment 3 is out of self-interest. It’s a field in which the University is heavily involved, including a program on Developmental, Regenerative and Stem Cell Biology in the school’s Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences. In the 2006 election, Wash. U. strongly supported an amendment that would allow scientists greater access to stem cell research. That same year, they also supported an amendment, similar to this year’s, that would have increased the tobacco tax. That version of the tax did not pass, but their shift in support does emphasize that Wash. U.’s stance on the tax tends to lie with whatever is in their best interest at the time.

Of course, there is no inherent problem with supporting certain political actions out of self-interest. Every voter will be doing just the same when they go to the polls on Nov. 8. However, with a University this large and influential, it is disheartening to see the limited scope of Wash. U.’s political actions. We applaud the University’s decision to defend stem cell research, but encourage Wash. U. to take similar actions in other political battles that affect students, faculty, campus workers and surrounding community members.

Many members of the University community have indeed been politically outspoken, but the institution rarely backs them up with meaningful action. Risa Zwerling Wrighton and Dean Nancy Staudt, for instance, have previously spoken out on the public health implications of gun violence. Yet, we could not find any record of an institutional stance against 2014’s Missouri Amendment 5 or House Bill 1439, both of which loosened gun laws in the state. There was also no institutional position on the recent passing of Senate Bill 656, a gun rights bill which lead to a New York Times editorial dubbing Missouri the “Shoot-Me State.”

Perhaps, the University simply struggles to form an institutional opinion when their research dollars aren’t at stake. Instead, the University’s standard plan of action for divisive political issues tends to take the form of panels, forums and community discussions. These strategies are certainly important, but they are also only a small step in political activity.