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Yale Divinity School inner city program funded by tobacco and wine company

Published Oct. 9, 2005

(ran CTI,NT,CT,LT,CI,TP editions)

In business ethics classes, the dean of Yale Divinity School often talks with his students about the difficulty of making moral judgments about companies.

"I talk about how the nature of the business you're involved in is important, but there's no way to say, "This is a good business, this is a bad business'," the Rev. Thomas W. Ogletree said.

Ogletree applies the same logic to companies which offer to support the divinity school.

"Can someone give you money if there is something in their lives or business activities that may be morally ambiguous?" the dean said in a recent interview. "We normally don't screen donors to see if there is something in their past that we don't approve of."

The Yale Divinity School recently accepted a five-year, $280,000 grant from Greenwich-based UST Inc., a tobacco and wine products company, to launch an urban ministry program in Connecticut.

The program, to begin this September, will introduce students from the nondenominational school to problems ministers face in inner cities. Students will take courses in the field and serve as interns in community organizations helping poverty-stricken areas.

United States Tobacco Co., a UST subsidiary, markets moist smokeless tobacco products, including such popular brands as Copenhagen and Skoal, cigars, pipe tobacco, pipes and pipe cleaners. Another subsidiary markets premium wines sold by the Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden wineries. UST had sales of over $1-billion last year.

Ogletree said a grant from a tobacco and wine company is probably not much different from a donation from an automobile manufacturer.

"I would want to say that what a company does is never without ambiguity," he said.

"Can one, as a Christian, manufacture and sell automobiles? I think most of us would say yes. It's not evil to sell autos, but we know they are linked with destruction in the environment. It's not illegal to do, but it is not without ambiguity.

"If you asked, "Do we need smokeless tobacco and wine as much as automobiles?' One can argue that we are too dependent on autos," Ogletree said. "You could argue that hamburgers are more dangerous to your health than wine."

UST has also agreed to assist Yale in raising $3-million from other corporations to provide permanent support for the program and to hire a faculty member.

The faculty member would evaluate which church programs in the inner cities are most effective. The school hopes the program will become a catalyst for other local social service efforts by providing training and support for ministers.

Harry W. Peter III, a UST vice president who was the catalyst for the company's involvement in the Yale program, sees no conflict between its products and its funding of a divinity school program.

"The reason we got involved stems in part from our general concern for problems in the inner city," he said. "The idea is, we are a profitable company, we are located in Connecticut (and) on behalf of shareholders we have responsibilitiesto behave as a responsible citizen in the face of community needs."

The company offered the gift in hopes of encouraging other corporations to participate in the program, Ogletree said.

"If they're successful, it won't be just their program, it will be a collective corporate effort. They're not asking us to endorse their products," he said.