The Residence Hall Association did not conduct a formal survey of dorm residents before persuading University officials to ban smoking in residence halls next year, prompting some students to question the group’s methods.
“They went about it the wrong way,” said freshman Greg McDonald, a smoker. “They should have had floor meetings. There should have been a student voice.”
RHA President Dan Miller said his group made a decision not to formally gauge students’ opinion about a smoking ban.
“We could have spent the school year doing surveys, but what would that have told us? We’re not a polling firm,” he said.
But some students said the RHA made a mistake in not making an extensive effort to find out how students feel about the issue.
Student Association Sen. Hilary Golston (CCAS-U) said the main question she had for the RHA was how the group came to the decision that students wanted a ban. Miller said elected RHA members were encouraged to talk to dorm residents about the ban, but Golston said the RHA’s word-of-mouth efforts might not have been the best way to ascertain opinions.
“It seems like it should work that way – but sometimes it doesn’t work like that,” said Golston, who chairs the Student Life Committee and is running for SA president.
Golston said the SA has the infrastructure to conduct blast e-mail surveys of students and that the RHA could have utilized that resource.
“A formal survey, I think, would have been a better idea,” Golston said.
RHA Vice President Jon Ostrower said nobody from the SA ever presented him with the option of conducting a survey. He said after informal talks with SA senators, it was agreed that the RHA would be responsible for handling the issue.
But SA Senator Eli Mazour (SEAS-U) said the RHA did not discuss the issue with the Senate, and Anyah Dembling, the SA’s executive vice president, said she did not even know the ban was even being considered until she read about the decision in The Hatchet.
“They didn’t consult the SA staff that’s supposed to represent all the students,” Mazour said. “I don’t think it’s a completely unreasonable decision, although I disagree with it, but for me it was a big surprise.”
Miller said his group decided not to inform student media outlets that his group was working with the University to try to ban smoking in the dorms.
“There was no reason to publicize it,” Miller said. “I think it would have pulled away from our goal of helping students.”
The RHA found “overwhelmingly positive feedback” about the move, Miller said. But students were not alerted of the proposal through advertising in the dorms, he said, and the RHA’s Web site made no mention of a possible smoking ban.
“We didn’t want to make posters saying we’re thinking about banning smoking,” Miller said. “It takes away from the idea of what we’re trying to do.”
Ostrower said that as elected representatives of the all the halls, the RHA general body was qualified to represent students, so a formal study was not needed.
Miller also said that although there was “no formal process per se” to get students’ opinions, the RHA had about four discussions, some of which drew 75 elected RHA members who essentially served as a focus group. He also pointed out that all dorm residents are invited to attend RHA meetings throughout the year, but said some students were not receptive to the RHA’s efforts to discuss the issue.
“We try to talk to as many people as possible, but a lot of people don’t care,” Miller said.
University officials decided to heed the recommendation of the RHA partly based on the fact that the push for a ban was a “student-led initiative” important to people living in dorms, spokesperson Tracy Schario said.
Miller said he supported the ban on smoking in dorms because the habit can damage paint, burn carpets, cause false fire alarms and affect students who have conditions such as asthma. He said it also wafts through some buildings’ ventilation systems.
Facilities management told the RHA about how smoke can damage paint and furniture, Ostrower said, adding that students informed his organization about smoke traveling through ventilation systems. Ostrower, an Ivory Tower resident, said students living in buildings such as his and New Hall reported smelling smoke from other rooms.
“I’ve heard from students who have asthma that it’s really affecting them,” he said.
Senior Deena Vezo, an Ivory Tower resident, said she often smells smoke from other rooms, “especially on the weekend.”
“We haven’t complained about it because we don’t really mind that much,” she said. “But you can smell it.”
Only 100 to 200 students requested to live in smoking rooms this school year, Miller said, suggesting that most students would not be opposed to the idea of a smoking ban.
“It a very low percentage,” Miller said. “It’s a small group of students screwing it up for everybody.”
Rebecca Sawyer, senior assistant dean of students, said penalties for smoking in a dorm would be minor and tantamount to having a lit candle. She explained that RHA did not make the decision to ban smoking in the dorms; rather, the group offered a recommendation that went forward and was ultimately approved by GW.
Freshman Greg McDonald said he thought the smoking ban was initiated by the University administration and said he was surprised to learn RHA led the effort.
“That pisses me off,” McDonald, a smoker, said. “I thought it was from the school, not other students.”
Josh Gonzalez, a freshman, said that while he was “totally ambivalent” about the ban because he does not smoke, the University should have let students play a greater role in the decision.
“It’s just another step in the University’s totally phasing out of the student voice,” Gonzalez said.
Sen. Ryan Kilpatrick (ESIA-U) said that despite criticism about the process, every dorm has representation in the RHA, so ultimately student opinions were considered.
“I think that all students were represented at (the RHA) general body meeting from the residence halls, and I think they made a decision that’s the best for all students,” Kilpatrick said.
-Larry Adler, Michael Barnett and Catherine Villnave contributed to this report.