Thursday, March 15, 2012

University smothers smoking dialogue

By Reno Sorensen, Copy Editor

The approaching tobacco ban looms and Pacific Lutheran students recognize recent attempts at discussion for what they are:smoke and mirrors.

The ban will prohibit all tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, pipe smoke and chew beginning June 1.

Task Force on a Tobacco-Free Campus Coordinator Teri Phillips said in a Feb. 24 Mast article she was “surprised by no turnout”at a series of open forums on the ban Feb. 15-16. Staff writer Nick Neely reported that 11 students total attended the forums.

Lack of attendance might have been due to students losing interest or general satisfaction with the resolution, Executive Director of Residential Life Tom Huelsbeck said in the story.

Or, maybe students were silent because the university has implied that student opinion, ultimately, doesn’t make a difference.

“I disagree with it [the smoking ban decision],”Resident Assistant senior Boo Dodson said. “They kind of quickly brought up this idea to the campus, made it an ultimatum and shoved it into policy. It’s anti-liberal and against freedoms.”

No matter how many forums students attend or how many complaints students send to the Office of the President, the university will still “become a tobacco-free on or around June 1, 2012,” the Office of the President said in a December email. “The goal has not changed.”

In 2010, a group of nursing students observed that Washington state regulations concerning public smoking were being ignored and proposed action to regulate or ban smoking on campus.

So began what felt like a responsible and necessary year-long discussion about health and individual rights at a private, liberal arts university. 

The Office of the President cut that conversation short in November when they announced the ban in an email to the student body.The suddenness of the decision left students feeling sidelined in the decision-making process.

“I think there should have been more involvement,rather than making it an executive decision,” junior Chiara Rose-Witt said.

I’ve spoken to smokers and non-smokers alike about the ban. Most agree the university could have handled the discussion more democratically rather than dropping the hammer, then feigning openness by holding forums.

PLU claims to promote lives of thoughtful inquiry,but the way university officials implemented the ban makes it feel more like an administrative muscle show than a philosophical step forward.

Sometimes, an administration needs to make a final decision to avoid immediate, irreversible harm to those governed. This was not one of those instances. 

I encourage university administration and the Office of the President to remember that, more often than not, the medium is the message.