Snowy Decision Making

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December 18, 2011

As I write this, I'm beginning my day already exhausted, having spent the past five hours trying to deal with the decision-making process of a snowstorm during the heart of exam week. That is the type of decision that drives administrators the craziest.

My campus is in what's called "the mid-South," not quite halfway between Memphis and Nashville, right on Tennessee's Music Highway, Interstate 40. On the edge of the Delta, we get fairly strong weather fronts that have come off the plains and are starting their ascent toward the Appalachian highlands on the other side of the state. That makes us prone to tornados and ice storms, as we are far enough north to have solid freezes but far enough south to keep the ground warm during all but the deepest part of winter.

I grew up near Buffalo, N.Y., the son of Southern expatriates who were forced to learn how to drive in snow. In the South of my parents, children learned how to drive at an early age, and my parents wanted me to know how to deal with a vehicle in foul weather. Starting in sixth grade, I was taken by my father to an empty parking lot near our house whenever it would snow, where I practiced steering into slides and using low gears to my advantage. Now, whenever it snows, I have no trouble driving in my trusty truck. But I am keenly aware that most of my fellow residents of the mid-South were not the beneficiaries of such instruction.

Just last winter, we had to close the campus early during a snowstorm and I was among the last to leave. As I headed home, a teenager lost control of his SUV and T-boned me, trapping me for an hour before the vehicles could be separated so I could climb through the space where one of my car windows had been. My station wagon was totaled, but I was only scratched and bruised. And thankful.

As a senior administrator who is involved in making the decision about snow days, I always bear those two experiences in mind. My childhood in western New York makes me want to cast my vote in favor of only closing when the snow nears two feet in depth. The reality of travel in West Tennessee, however, makes me much more cautious.

The decision process on a potential snow day starts early. We have a group of five or so who deliberate by text message and e-mail. We usually copy the president and the public-relations staff member on our digital conversation, hoping to have a decision made by 6 a.m., so the local television and radio stations can greet folks with the information they need to start their day.

That means those of us making the call must be up and doing our research on the weather by 5 a.m. One of our team members lives near the campus, so she and the security folks are able to tell us what the conditions are there. My neighborhood is more rural, so I can tell what the commute may be like. We scan the radar from several sources, and check out forecasts on several Web sites and local television. We check with our regional campus directors to see if the weather is influencing their areas, too. Sometimes we get in our own vehicles and drive around a bit to see what the actual road conditions are, as they may vary significantly even over short distances in this region.

By 5:45 a.m. we are finalizing our decision. Because we are primarily a residential campus for traditional students during the day, our concerns are more for staff and faculty members at this time. Additionally, we know that it takes our facilities crew about two hours to get everything salted, cleared, and prepared for a snowy morning.

We watch to see if any of the local schools or other colleges have postponed or canceled. Sometimes it feels as though everyone is waiting for someone else to make the first decision, and then the rest follow suit.

The decision is actually a three-option question: Do we open with no changes? Do we delay opening for a bit? Or do we cancel altogether?

At the beginning of the spring semester, when there is time to make up missed classes, cancellations are a bit easier to come by, but in the late fall, it's much harder to cancel. Since today is the heart of exam week, we had a very difficult decision to make. Our students come from more than 40 states, so making up exams for students who already have plane tickets and travel arrangements in hand is a nightmare.

Whatever our decision, we make sure that we are at least near-uniform in our opinions and then we notify two folks specifically with the permission to make an announcement. The associate dean of students sends a text alert to everyone, using our emergency notification system. Simultaneously, our public-relations officer posts the announcement on the university Web site and begins to contact media outlets, each of which has been provided a password to avoid the embarrassment of students calling in to misreport closures.

When the snow starts falling in the middle of the day, it's a different decision. Our evening classes serve mostly commuters. Most of those courses have online platforms in use, so a cancellation is often really a move to that format, not an actual cancellation. The bigger issue is the high traffic use of our campus by community groups and student organizations. If we close the campus, we have taken on the responsibility of cancellation for external groups, and we hate to do that, especially for significant events such as community arts and fund-raising events for other organizations. Our goal is a 4 p.m. decision time for those folks, whenever possible.

The hardest part, however, about making weather-related decisions is the inability to please everyone. We rarely get more than three inches of snow; when a foot of the fluff falls on us, that's easy enough, but when it's an inch on the ground at 5:30 a.m. and the weather forecasters aren't certain how much more is on the way, it's an excruciating process.

The biggest critics are usually the people who grew up in snowy climes. A common complaint I hear is "The grocery stores are open; we should be too." But that complaint ignores the differences between a campus and a grocery store. If I leave my house to go to a grocery store, I'm taking the risk. If a college tells its students or employees that they must leave their houses and come in to the campus (or risk missing a grade or losing leave time), the burden shifts significantly.

The liability issue is one final aspect of the decision. We make it clear that if a commuter is legitimately unable to drive in, faculty members should find ways to help the student make up any work. The same goes for employees: If they can't make it to work, their supervisors are directed to be lenient in handling absences. We make sure our facilities staff has enough time to prepare the campus safely. Having been in that snow-related accident last year, I am particularly sensitive to those things.

At 6 a.m. this morning, we decided to open on schedule but to remind everyone to take their time and monitor the weather. We sent out a text message, which is not our usual policy for an opening-on-time announcement, but since it was an exam day, we wanted everyone to know that we were having exams on time. At 7:45 a.m., we e-mailed all faculty members and asked them to be gracious as they dealt with any students who were late for, or absent from, their exams. So far I haven't heard of any who were.

As our students leave the campus for their break, they will take with them memories of a campus that looked like an old-fashioned Christmas card. One more snow-day decision down; the rest of the winter to go.

Gene C. Fant Jr., is vice president for academic administration at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. He is a contributing blogger for The Chronicle's On Hiring blog.