Horton: Open Letter in Support of USG’s Resolution R. 25-04

On May 6, while I was serving as vice president of the Graduate Student Senate, Professor Elizabeth Click explained the tobacco-free campus initiative. This was the second time she presented the policy to GSS, and it was clear that the committee had failed to seriously address concerns our assembly had raised several months prior. Though I shared the assembly’s worries about safety, enforcement and equitability, I chose to ask a more basic question: Is there any empirical evidence to demonstrate that a campus tobacco ban will lead to reduced tobacco usage?

Given CWRU’s status as a world-class research university, we might assume that we would never implement such a sweeping policy without doing some basic research. Certainly we would not base policy decisions on an argument that depends upon an unsubstantiated first premise. Imagine my surprise, then, at Click’s response. The committee benchmarked with peer institutions, she observed, and at one institution, they noticed fewer cigarette butts on the ground. Therefore, she concluded, a tobacco ban might reduce smoking on campus.

I hope any first-year undergraduate admitted to this university can see how far this stands from empirical evidence. What’s more telling, however, is the phrase “on campus.” We didn’t ask about tobacco use on campus; we asked about tobacco use in general. Smoking is just as unhealthy in Wade Park as it is on the Mather Quad. And herein lies the problem.

If the administration’s goal is to reduce tobacco use in order to improve health and well-being, then there is no evidence that a tobacco ban will help. If, however, the goal is to get tobacco products off campus, knowing that users will just take their cigarettes elsewhere, then the policy might work. But we should at least be honest about what we are trying to accomplish, and we should take responsibility for the unintended consequences. Many members of the GSS assembly warned Click of some unintended consequences last year. The Undergraduate Student Government (USG) did the same. But to my knowledge, nothing in the policy has meaningfully changed.

Last year, GSS asked several questions about the policy. How can we guarantee that this policy will be enforced equitably when the current policy is already unenforceable? What populations on campus are most likely to be penalized? Is CWRU’s endowment tied to tobacco in any way, and if so, why target the tobacco user before the tobacco industry? How is the fad for tobacco bans ideologically different from the eighteenth amendment or the disastrous war on drugs? What measures will be taken to maintain student safety, given the increased likelihood that students will venture off campus property to use tobacco products?

These are serious questions, and they deserve serious consideration. GSS and USG tried asking these questions last year, and graduate and undergraduate students are still wondering if they have been heard.

Furthermore, GSC (the Graduate Student Council, which represents all graduate students at CWRU) is a brand new government. While students in the School of Graduate Studies discussed the policy last year through GSS, over half the constituency of GSC has never received this opportunity.

Instead of returning to these democratically elected governments with a response to our feedback, the administration chose to ignore our input entirely. The administration realized it would get critical feedback from both governments if it brought the current policy before USG and GSC. To spare itself that headache, it cut us out of the process.

Ultimately, I support USG’s resolution, not just because of its stance on the tobacco ban, but because of what the resolution affirms with its first clause: “Case Western Reserve University’s Core Value of Integrity and Transparency explicitly includes ‘shared governance.’”

As the former vice president of GSS and the current president of another graduate student organization, this decision gives me grave misgivings. It causes me to wonder whether students at CWRU truly have input into the shared governance of their university.

If this is how we handle a small issue like a tobacco ban, how can students trust that they will have authentic input into more serious decisions? Meanwhile, graduate students across the nation are reasserting themselves. At NYU, Columbia, The New School, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Chicago, Wisconsin, Missouri and elsewhere, graduate students have organized and insisted that they are workers, that they have a share in the decision-making process, and that, as USG President Chippy Kennedy puts it, they won’t be content with “a lot of ‘trust me’ attitude.”

I urge the CWRU administration to listen to student voices before carrying this or any policy forward. When GSC passes its resolution in February, the governments representing all students at CWRU will stand united. But let’s be clear: our grievance is not over the tobacco ban, but over the idea that student voices must only be heeded when it’s politically expedient.

Ray Horton

President: Graduate Council of the Arts and Sciences

Ph.D. Student, Dean’s Fellow, and Teaching Assistant: Department of English