How ought we govern ourselves? A response to the smoking policy

I’ve seen the story posted on various social media outlets, and probably, so have you: America is in reality an oligarchy. The potential problems with that label, “oligarchy,” and with the methodology of the study aside, the BBC’s headline caught on and spread virally. The fact that the reach of this academic research attained viral proportions attests to the study’s ability to shatter myths—specifically, the myth of American democracy. In (re)posting the article, we seem to suggest: America is not what it seems.

While many of us at Sarah Lawrence never had such sanguine views of our system of government, we may have our own myths circulating closer to home. Just as there is the myth of American democracy, so we might be investing in a kind of myth of campus democracy. And just like American democracy, it’s a myth we can no longer afford to believe in.

A recent article, “Smoking Ban: Yay or Nay?” published in the April 9th issue of The Phoenix, provides an instructive illustration. In a noble attempt to shed light on student opinion of the recent decision to ban smoking throughout campus, perhaps in the hopes of reversing the policy, Lauren Gray’s article revealed poll results that indicated that a majority of students disagree with the decision to go smoke-free. However, through my experiences on student government, I am of the conviction that substantive, successful critiques of the new smoking policy must begin not with which decision was made, but rather with how that decision was made.

I have heard it asserted, by students, that the decision to ban smoking was not “legitimate,” because it was not based on what the student body wanted. Indeed, I think it should be clear by now that (1) this decision was not based on a direct-democratic model, (2) student input was not the deciding factor or even a major factor in the decision, and (3) students are definitively against this policy now that it has been decided upon and announced. The survey results collected by the Smoking Policy Taskforce itself show that students were decidedly not in favor of an entirely smoke-free campus, and minutes taken at the two town hall meetings were a sparse collection of words, not even composed into complete sentences, demonstrating only a perfunctory investment in collecting substantial student input.* More recently, at a Senate meeting early this semester, my comment that students disagreed with the policy was met with wordless shrugs by staff members who sat on the Smoking Policy Taskforce (the decision had been made, their body language seemed to suggest, and I was beating a dead horse). The results of Gray’s poll, of course, confirm again these observations. To be sure: It is clear that students are not in favor of the policy, and it is clear that the administrators who made the policy came to their decision, and continue to stand by it, in spite of this.

But whether the decision was legitimate all depends on one’s model of legitimacy. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for one, might beg to differ with the aforementioned cry of illegitimacy. One could make the case (if one wanted to) that as part of a “campus social contract,” administrators may justifiably override the majority opinion of the student body if they judge it to be in their best benefit. Naturally, this implies that administrators may know better than students, but some on campus (including the administrators who make these decisions) may very well believe this to be so. Nurses, for example, do in fact have expert knowledge on the health effects of smoking, and deans who work with students with disabilities have expert knowledge on the debilitating effects of second hand smoke on particular segments of the student body.

Even if we did decide a direct-democratic model was the best way to go, if we made our decisions based on majority votes, there is still the question of who “we,” who  “the people,” are. Would staff and faculty be a part of this democratic process? And what weight would their voices have? While staff and faculty do not live on campus, many of them have worked here for multiple decades, ultimately spending more time on campus then we students do in our four years—even if students are full-time residents. Should staff/faculty votes be given more influence? (Because there are, surely, those among the staff and faculty who are in support of the move to go smoke-free.)

These problematics aside, it is still the case that even when faculty and staff are considered, the campus at large is decidedly not in favor of an outright ban, as shown in the Taskforce’s own survey results.

We may then have an even bigger problem on our hands, bigger than a simple miscommunication over the “facts” or over what the student body and the campus at large “really” want: it may be the case that we disagree with the model of governance the Smoking Policy Taskforce adopted. It is from here that we must necessarily start the conversation. We have to go back to the classic question from political theory: how ought we govern ourselves?

Do administrators have the right to enact a policy for the “general welfare,” however defined, of the students and the campus at large, or must all campus policies stem from a “mandate,” in whatever form, from “the people”? This is a value, not a factual, question. And it is one that has ramifications extending far beyond the smoking policy, a question for us to consider, deeply, to look into ourselves as an institution and ask which is the way we wish to proceed.

As with states and their social contracts, unless we engage with and critique the model of governance, any decision made on any basis can be construed as “legitimate.” We need to address the model by which we are governed before we critique the particularities of a policy on its own merit. Evidence abounds, time and time again, that students do not want this policy; the administration, time and time again, holds fast on their decision. This much is known. A more productive next step may be getting administrators to admit—and admitting to ourselves—that we are working with two different models of what “legitimate” means. Frighteningly enough, their inspiration may come from The Leviathan.



*From the Smoking Policy Taskforce Documentation available from the SLC Archives.


  • Reply April 30, 2014



  • Reply May 18, 2014

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  • Reply August 17, 2014


    Smoking is a dumb thing to protect. There are two children’s centers on campus and some people want to protect their “right” to smoke? What about people who are not ok with smoke?

    This article frames this issue in terms of administrators vs students. “It is clear that students are not in favor of the policy, and it is clear that the administrators who made the policy came to their decision, and continue to stand by it, in spite of this.”
    What about students with asthma and other health problems? These students would probably be in the minority, should they just submit to the “tyranny of the majority” and deal with it on their own or move to another college?
    This is not only a political issue, but a health issue and that needs to be taken into account.

    Empathy is needed. Perhaps administrators felt that after failed smoking ban attempts in the past, now was the time to get tough? I agree that critical conversation should not be averted, as it will have ramifications, (imagine an internet or tv ban without due process in the distant future ), but maybe we should all calm down and discuss this over some warm peach tea.

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