Tobacco-free Campus Debate Offers Lesson in Civil Discourse

Government shutdowns, recriminations, name-calling, misrepresentation of opposing viewpoints, bullying, spreading of malicious falsehoods . . .

From Twitter to the evening news, examples of uncivil discourse abound. This makes it a really refreshing change to observe the University Student Government (USG) handling a sensitive issue like the tobacco-free campus with such maturity and understanding.

When USG first announced a smoke-free campus as a primary objective for 2010-2011, I gave an inward groan and muttered, “Uh oh, St. Thomas joins the maddening crowd.” The only thing likely to generate more heat and rhetoric would be a rousing discussion of climate change.

Was I ever surprised. Led by Mike Orth and Dwight Anderson, the USG Tobacco-Free Committee began its work with a survey of campus opinion. Imagine that, trying to figure out what the community really wants before pushing a policy. From that good start, the committee displayed great sensitivity to all viewpoints. No one on any side of the debate was called an evil polluter of an interfering bluestocking. Admirable restraint.

The outcome of the survey revealed a 60/40 split in favor of tobacco free. Maybe some legislators would call this a mandate and ram a vote through, while others would abscond to Florida, but not our students. Instead they showed respect for minority opinions by seeking further information and took positive steps, like sponsoring cessation programs. Well, some may have headed south, but what is spring break for?

The issue does bring attention to the best approach to members of the community who engage in risky behaviors – tobacco, alcohol or drugs. I’m torn between a respect for people’s rights to make individual decisions and the desire to shout warnings.

One semester, I was teaching Principles of Microeconomics when I noticed a student in the class taking surreptitious sips from a paper cup. It could have been coffee, but he wouldn’t have needed to hide a cup of coffee. I thought, “What do I do? He’s drinking in class?” My next thought was, “This is an 8:15 a.m. class. ‘Mark’ has a big problem. I can’t let this go.”

As I pondered how best to approach this situation, I remembered a major exam was coming up for the class, and with Mark sitting in the back row. … Aha! The perfect opportunity to do a bit of detective work (and a good excuse for procrastinating)!

On the morning of the exam, while Mark was concentrating, I slipped up behind him and took a peek at the cup. The liquid was amber. Whiskey? I picked up the cup. He didn’t notice – it was a tough exam. I took a sniff. Not whiskey. What was that smell? And, the liquid was viscous.

Just before I took a sip to be sure, it dawned on me – Mark wasn’t sipping, he was spitting.  Still risky behavior, but better than downing shots in class, I suppose.