Or, to put it another way, the university must choose whether or not its thriving but impecunious Department of International Studies is at long last to get a professor, and whether each year a handful of students from poor countries are to be given financial support to come and study the subject in Britain.
Is Cambridge, to put it baldly, to take or turn down the shilling of BAT Industries (formerly British American Tobacco), one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world and, in Britain, the name behind such brands as Lucky Strike, Kent and Pall Mall? If the answer is no, the proposal is dead; if yes, it will go to a written ballot by the Regent House, the body of 3,000 permanent members of the university teaching staff, to decide.
In February BAT announced its offer to donate pounds 1.6m for a professorship of International Relations, to be named the Sir Patrick Sheehy Chair, in honour of the company's recently retired chairman. Cambridge would then provide about pounds 1m from its own resources to endow four studentships and two scholarships in the same department, to be called "BAT studentships" and "BAT scholarships".
Coming at the same time that Oxford was agonising over whether to accept money from Gert-Rudolf Flick, grandson of the Nazi-supporting industrialist, BAT's offer caused another huge rumpus in the dignified world of the dons. In March, at the university's senate house, senior members of the medical faculty railed against the proposal. Regius Professor of Physic Sir Keith Peters reminded fellow senators of the prediction that, "If current worldwide smoking patterns persist, about 10 million deaths a year will be caused by tobacco in 30 years' time ... It would be ironic indeed if the university were to accept funds to support a Chair of International Relations which have been in large part derived from the export of a known carcinogen to the Third World."
Sir Keith's colleague, Professor Kay-Tee Khaw, acknowledged that no one in the university "would have anything at all if we insisted on absolute purity of financial sources", but urged that there was "a qualitative difference between the proposed BAT endowment and, say, the Nobel Prize or even the controversial Flick gift in Oxford". The dubious activities of a Nobel or a Flick were all in the past; BAT, meanwhile, was still "actively involved in promoting consumption of a substance that is known to cause death and suffering to vast numbers of people...."
Considering the august participants, it was not much of a debate: the Sheehy chair's proponents from the International Studies Department did not argue that cigarettes were good for you, nor even, as was once suggested by the industry, that nicotine was useful in combating stress. Sir Roger Tomkys, speaking for the Department of International Studies, pointed out that when the centre was first established in the late Seventies it was funded by the Ministry of Defence. Sir Patrick, he went on, had already benefited the university greatly by raising pounds 3m to save the Royal Commonwealth Library and bring it to Cambridge. But the main point was that the centre was grievously short of money and if the university were to stare this particular gift horse in the mouth, it should not be surprised if other potential donors took fright and went elsewhere.
Tainted money has been spiritually laundered through the universities at least since the endowment of Christ Church College, Oxford, by Henry VIII. The filthy rich and the transparently worthy have always made a happy match, each possessing what the other most desired. Yet the transaction has been in the nature of a seduction, with the poorer, weaker, more virtuous party clamping shut its eyes and trying to pretend it wasn't happening.
Thus when Sir Basil Zaharoff, the arms dealer known as "the merchant of death", endowed the Marshal Foch professorship in French at Oxford, the dons probably closed their eyes and thought piously of the lucky students who would benefit in years to come. When Rhodes endowed his scholarships, and his imperialistic friend Alfred Beit set up a professorship in colonial history earlier this century, empires were still in fashion - but there must have been murmurings about the wealthy trying to fix the historical record.
The motives of those who endow chairs and the like are varied. Some, one imagines, wish merely and innocently to perpetuate their name in a dignified setting: when the wealthy Radio Rentals tycoon and racehorse owner David Robinson endowed a new college in Cambridge in the Seventies, his motive was probably disinterested vanity, though that didn't prevent a large number of dons peering down their noses at the gift.
More often, though, there is an attempted spin. At Cambridge after the Second World War, Shell founded the Department of Chemical Engineering to stimulate the numbers of people graduating in that subject; BP later endowed a chair in chemistry for the same reason. Others pour in money to persuade scholars to look more avidly in their particular direction. Oxford has received several large donations from Japanese corporations in the past few years. Without them, Oxford would probably have got along without bothering too much about that corner of the world.
In our crass and superficial age, however, money is often given to universities simply as a form of advertising. Back in March, the washing machine manufacturer Zanussi borrowed the Old Hall of Queens' College, Cambridge, for a night to award their top salesmen with "degrees", while all present capered in gowns and mortar boards. It was a stunt, the borrowing of the institution's lustre of age and eminence, in the same way that they might choose to advertise in a glossy publication such as Vogue or World of Interiors.
Arguably, BAT's offer falls into this category. As the company's press officer, Michael Prideaux, points out, BAT did not specify which chair they wished to endow. "We said to Cambridge, how would you like it if we were to endow a chair? It was they who proposed the chair of international relations." So if the firm had no particular field of study that it wished to promote, why the generosity? "If we can be associated with a centre of excellence such as Cambridge," Prideaux explains, "that helps the company's reputation."
BAT may not have specified international relations, but the choice must please them none the less. The two BAT scholarships and four studentships will probably go to students from poor countries in places like Africa - the countries where, in the wake of the tobacco price war in the United States, the tobacco firms are striving most fiercely for market share and profit.
And it is in these Third World markets that BAT's publicity methods have long been most flagrant. In Kenya, for example, BAT pours money into the office of the president and the national celebrations. In Nigeria it endows what are called Young Farmers' Training Centres. These are aspects of the company's policy of trying, in its own words, to "sustain and strengthen the community in which it operates" - methods of entrenching the company in the fabric of the nation.
Seen from this perspective, the goal of the prospective BAT endowment to Cambridge becomes clearer. As Professor Nick Day, director of the Institute of Public Health at Cambridge, wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement, "Many of these students will be part of the next generation of leaders on their return home - a phalanx of influential leaders formed in Cambridge, indebted to BAT."
Such interpretations of BAT's strategic thinking are speculative. Beyond dispute, however, are the findings reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July of last year. Based on several thousand pages of documents sent anonymously to a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, the journal revealed that the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation (B&W) and BAT, its parent company, had conducted advanced and sophisticated studies into the damaging health effects of tobacco many years ago; had learnt from these that tobacco was harmful and nicotine addictive; but had deliberately buried the research to keep its findings from the public.
This previously unknown history of deception introduces a completely new element into the debate about BAT's proposed chair. As Dr JW Powles pointed out to the Cambridge senate, "Those who now lead the tobacco industry are not moral innocents. They have obtained or retained their posts at a time when all these things were known ... Individually and collectively, they, more than almost any other comparable group in our society, must practise and perfect the arts of self-deception, dissimulation and deceit ....
"As organisations that can only prosper by the active suppression of the truth," he went on, "cigarette companies are intrinsically 'anti-university'. Given their wealth, they are the most powerful 'anti-universities' in our society."
The image is alarmist: of alien, amoral entities burying themselves in the organs of our oldest institutions, stealing for themselves the gravitas of centuries. BAT's Michael Prideaux snorts derisively. "I do find it faintly ridiculous, this idea of BAT, one of the top 10 companies in Britain, trying to buy respectability."Reuse content