Tobacco Ban Underscores College’s Flawed Governance

Jordan Ecker, Contributing Writer

Oberlin students received an email Monday from Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo urging “members of the Oberlin community” to please respect the campus’ “tobacco-free” policy. The message wasn’t that there was a ban on cigarettes and that we would be punished for smoking. The message was that we ought to act as respectful members of a democratic community and practice civic virtue by respecting the norms we had all agreed upon.

It’s a darkly ironic message. The tobacco ban — and make no mistake, if you are prohibiting members of a community from doing something, it is a ban — is representative of how distinctly undemocratic Oberlin’s campus governance is.

As a member of Student Senate during 2014–15 and a member of the Tobacco Ban Implementation Committee, I bore witness to the undemocratic nature of the ban’s creation. The plan was concocted by a handful of elites: Machmud Makhmudov, OC ’16, who in 2014 held a brief monopoly of power in Student Senate, and administrators, notably President Marvin Krislov. There was no organic democratic demand for the ban. There was no grassroots organizing and no deliberation within the community that concluded a ban was necessary. Instead, the ban was drafted by a handful with their eye to the supposed wellbeing of the mass in mind, motivated by a perception that Oberlin was falling behind other progressive colleges in upholding student health without a ban.

At least three polls of the student body were taken when the ban was being drafted. None found a majority in favor. But elites working on the ban still insisted on using the self-satisfying rhetoric of democratic governance, portraying themselves as representatives of a democratic community organized around principles of self-governance. In reality, the principles behind the tobacco ban are the opposite of democratic: The primary actors all believed that they, not the masses, knew what was in the community’s self-interest. Students were portrayed as incapable of self-governance — a ban was necessary for their own good, whether they knew it or not.

Before anything else, democracy means self-rule. It means giving people and groups the right to determine who they are. Rather than adhere to democratic principles, the administration used rhetorical messaging to attempt to convince students that the ban is in our best interests, ignoring the negative poll results. Its advocates touted its supposed positive effects on the environment and public health, while in reality smoking has limited ecological effect, and the ban ignores the needs of those who rely on smoking as a way to regulate their mood or anxiety.

The ban was hatched by elites for elite satisfaction. It was fueled by a technocratic ideal of governance, in which students and community members are treated as parts to be optimized rather than self-governing individuals capable of making choices. It was justified with liberal rhetoric, but its enforcement can only be autocratic. Administrators say that students should not protest, disrupt or otherwise try to break the collegiate machine. Instead, we should behave like willing gears within it, using only the levers for change the administration supplies us with. When Oberlin students express their collective democratic will and attempt to pull the lever on carbon divestment or boycotting Israel, we are told our initiative is impractical or out of joint with Oberlin’s values. But when a handful of elites decide the masses are unclean and unhealthy, the masses’ behavior is regulated with a moralizing rhetoric and a police force slinking behind it, somewhere in the shadows.