HARRISBURG, Pa. – With virtually no warning, smoking at 14 of Pennsylvania's state-owned universities has been banned anywhere on campus — even outdoors.
The action has sparked protests around the state by some of the 110,000 students in the State System of Higher Education, who received word of the ban by e-mail late Wednesday — a day before a new state law forbidding smoking in most workplaces and public spaces took effect.
After discussions with university presidents and system board members, Chancellor John Cavanaugh said he interprets the law to extend beyond buildings at educational facilities to include all campus grounds, such as courtyards, parking lots and athletic fields.
Cavanaugh, who took over as chancellor in July, said some classes occasionally meet outside, and the schools also hold outdoor fundraising events and receptions.
"After all of that deliberation, we decided we would go on the side of caution," he said.
The move to make campuses systemwide completely smoke-free is apparently unprecedented among state-funded Pennsylvania universities, but the American Lung Association said more than 130 colleges and universities across the country have such policies.
Penn State University, a public university that is not part of the state system, bans smoking inside buildings and university-owned vehicles and within a certain distance of building entrances, but allows smoking elsewhere at its flagship University Park campus in State College, a spokeswoman said. Some of Penn State's other campuses have stricter bans, spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.
Students who feel the policy is too extreme have organized peaceful protests of smokers and sympathetic nonsmokers on at least three of the 14 Pennsylvania campuses, and there is talk of a coordinated statewide demonstration later this week.
At the student center of Clarion University, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, about 60 students gathered outside at around lunchtime Monday and then marched to the grounds of the campus library, where they lit up, said Steve Dugan, a 20-year-old freshman for Pittsburgh who participated in the protest.
"We're simply asking for some compromise, like one or two designated (smoking) areas on campus," Dugan said. "It would have been better if there were more warning given and a chance to put in our own ideas."
Campus police issued small yellow cards to the student smokers printed with warnings that "future occurrences may result in possible sanctions, including fines and/or disciplinary action" and advice to contact the campus health center for help quitting smoking.
Psychology professor Marite Rodriguez Haynes, who has worked at Clarion for 20 years, said she sympathized with the protesters, even though she doesn't smoke.
"It's almost close to Prohibition," she said. "I think it's impractical. It's good for me, but I don't know if it will get people to smoke less."
For now, university officials are concentrating on educating students and staff about the policy. The law gives state health officials responsibility for enforcement, and they are relying on the public to report violators.
Kutztown University sophomore Kelli Conkey, 19, said she intends to continue smoking regardless of the policy, but hopes anyone who objects will give her a chance to snuff out her cigarette rather than file a formal complaint.
"If they really don't like it, I hope they would come up to me and tell me that," Conkey said.