McKenna: Students were not truly heard during tobacco-free policy debate

Editor’s Note

In a Letter to the Editor last week, Vice President of Student Affairs Lou Stark strongly criticized our coverage of the Faculty Senate’s vote to make the campus tobacco-free. Our front page article from the Dec. 4 issue titled “Faculty Senate approves campus-wide tobacco ban without student input” outlined the issue at hand and voiced concerns students had with the Faculty Senate passing legislation to go tobacco free. At the time, legislation was passed, but the policy has since required a revote because Faculty Senate didn’t meet quorum.

Since it’s our duty to our readers to admit our mistakes, here’s what we should have done better on our end. Note that I took a hard look at the article after receiving Stark’s letter to the editor, and these following points do not all necessarily reflect what Stark criticized us for.

  1. The Dec. 4. article said that the “tobacco ban proposal was initially introduced by President Barbara R. Snyder in 2014. A campus-wide poll was conducted by USG at that time, indicating that 52 percent of students were in favor of a tobacco ban.” This was not accurate, a mistake for which I and the entire Observer staff apologizes. The planning actually began as Stark noted in 2011. A poll of the student body regarding the topic took place that year. Then, no polling of the student body took place until April 2014. The correct information was presented in the Jan. 15 article (“Tobacco-free policy to be reconsidered following invalid vote, student reaction”). If you want the most holistic view on the topic, I highly recommend reading our Dec. 4 and Jan. 15 pieces one after the other. Both can be found on our website.
  2. Additionally, we could have done a better job explaining the intersection between USG input, Faculty Senate and CWRU administration decisions. We left 400 words on the cutting desk already (one of the challenges we face on a weekly basis is to describe the bureaucracy of CWRU just enough for our readers to understand, but not so much that the piece becomes bogged down with extraneous information). On our production night we thought the article was clear enough, but do understand Stark’s concerns in hindsight. The best way to describe the process is that CWRU administration worked to draft the proposal, and then sought CWRU Faculty Senate approval. (But they did not look for approval from students; we’ll get to that later.) Our article chose to focus on the Faculty Senate (not CWRU administration) voting for approval without listening to student input.
  3. Last, in the story’s opening sentence, we should have noted that student input was taken in formulating the policy. The article on our website has been updated to reflect this change. We apologize for the error. It was absolutely correct when we said student input was not taken when the policy was voted on, however, and the article’s headline was not inaccurate or misleading. While mistakes were made, facts were not “ignored” as Stark states. With the information we had at the time, we presented the campus with an overarching view on this complicated topic.

Again, we apologize for the errors. We owe it to the campus community to learn from those mistakes and provide even better coverage of this topic going forward. There was no intention to mislead, but rather, there were some problems with the clarity of the already dense piece.

However let’s not allow this to distract from the real problem at hand. While students may have been included to an extent in drafting the policy, the administration’s original plan was to not include them in actually voting on the specific policy.

If our Dec. 4. article was misleading, than Stark’s letter to the editor was as well. Stark’s letter portrays the creation of the potential tobacco-free policy as filled with student input through the entire process. The letter distracts from policy change criticized by members of the Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate Student Council, the groups which the administration was supposed to be working with to consider a tobacco-free policy.

Stark’s letter did not note that students were not included in terms of approving the policy when it really mattered: that is, after the final policy was drafted. This is noted in the Dec. 4 article, and highlighted in comments from USG representatives in the Jan. 15 piece.

It is true that in April 2014, undergraduate students voted in a non-binding ballot regarding going tobacco free. And it is also true that over half of the ballots cast support going tobacco free.

However students were told that what they were voting on was a non-binding ballot. Additionally, students were not given specifics on how a tobacco-free policy would work. When it comes to voting, there is a major difference between an extremely general idea like “tobacco-free,” and the specific plan to create a tobacco-free campus.

The poll was a great move to get feedback, but should have not been sufficient enough feedback to pass a policy that hadn’t even been completely drafted yet.

USG President Chippy Kennedy summarized the concern well in our Jan. 15 article.

“President Snyder thinks that the poll in spring 2014 already shows student support to the new policy,” Kennedy noted. “Representing the USG, I would say that, first of all, the poll was not about the policy, but about whether or not we should go tobacco free. Second, it might be fairer to have students look at the policy themselves. So President Snyder and I initially disagreed on the sufficiency of the 2014 poll.”

Not only has USG expressed concerns with how the tobacco-free policy has been handled, but the former vice president of the Graduate Student Senate Ray Horton criticized the handling of the tobacco-free policy in a letter to the editor published online on Dec. 9. He says that the committee drafting the tobacco-free policy “failed to seriously address concerns our assembly had raised several months prior.”

Despite the administration’s slant, students, including ones whose organizations worked on the policy, do not feel heard on this topic.

I hope that changes.