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Alex Biles: Banned discussion

BY ALEX BILES

Published April 6, 2010

I’ve learned much in the two weeks since my letter to the University’s president (Dear President Coleman..., 03/25/2010). First, I learned that University President Mary Sue Coleman believes she’s my mother. Or at least she wants to be. And who could blame her? Just look at the black and white thumbnail photo included in the print edition of this column. But she also wants to be your mother. Coleman thinks she knows what’s best for our health, even though most of us are competent adults capable of making decisions and dealing with consequences.

She’s also a negligent mother to the campus community. I attempted to contact the University president on numerous occasions, only to be turned down every time. E-mail after e-mail, I found it hard to believe that I couldn’t receive a 30-second reply from Coleman, even if it was only to shut me up. Every attempt was followed by a response from some member of the University’s massive bureaucracy directing me to some other bureaucratic agency.

Our president’s disregard calls into question her priorities. It amazes me that President Barack Obama has directly reached out and written personal letters to citizens more than our University president has addressed student concerns. And although Obama is certainly no Coleman, I’m sure the man has a few things on his plate — a health care bill to pay for, two inherited wars and the largest debt in American history, for starters.

This is merely a microcosm of the lack of transparency, absence of student input and complete indifference the University has shown to the campus community in regard to the smoking ban. The Smoke-Free Initiative Steering Committee hasn’t granted the public any information on its meetings. Not to mention that the University hasn’t ruled out developing a database to track students who fail to adhere to the ban, according to a Nov. 12 Smoke-Free Initiative information session. The steering committee ironically asked for student input at two farcical “listening sessions” yet refused to reconsider any part of the initiative, despite being offered common sense alternatives, like more pronounced enforcement of the current ban, the establishment of smoking zones or a vote by the University community.

Granted, some of Coleman’s reasons for the Smoke-Free Initiative are likely motivated by good intentions like lowering the University’s health care costs. But these justifications are severely compromised by her compensation from a corporation that will likely benefit from the smoking ban. Coleman sits on the board of directors for Johnson & Johnson, from which she earned nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2009, and holds 11,159 shares of common stock, 10,777 shares of common stock equivalent units and 7,600 exercisable stock options in the company. Johnson & Johnson is the producer of a host of nicotine replacement products, including Nicoderm and Nicorette. Coleman explains, “the University will offer free behavioral sessions and selected over-the-counter smoking cessation products to faculty and staff, along with co-pay reductions for prescription tobacco cessation medicines (and) discounts on tobacco cessation aids.”

In other words, under the proposed Smoke-Free Initiative, the University would subsidize products made by Johnson & Johnson. The University would purchase more nicotine replacement products, likely resulting in financial gains for Johnson & Johnson and, consequently, Coleman.

Another thing I’ve realized is that most people I talk to are against the smoking ban. This is particularly true after I explain what the ban specifically entails. I’ve managed to convert at least a dozen individuals who previously favored the ban with sweet reason. When I explain to them that it’s an issue of individual choice, personal responsibility, lack of transparency and an unenforceable means for the University administration to claim campus is “smoke-free” and continue to wave its twisted banner of political correctness, they listen.

Our time at the University should be spent embracing the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood, not avoiding them. In spite of Coleman’s negligence, she wants me to believe that she’s entitled to hold my hand and protect me from her perceived dangers of the real world. Coleman can’t continue to ignore the fact that 1,373 students, faculty and staff have signed a petition opposing the smoking ban since Apr. 1. As a president who claimed to be receptive to “input from the campus community” and “ensuring that the needs of our University’s varied constituents are understood,” she has failed dismally, neglecting to take into account student input and allow for communication between the administration and campus community. Before Coleman tries to force any “culture of health” on us, she should address her own culture of conflicting interests.

Alex Biles can be reached at jabiles@umich.edu.


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