Dec. 4, 2013
When the bad weather hits, why, Bruce, doesn’t Western close?
Good question and the answer is nuanced. Although perhaps less academically weighty than other matters I have addressed here, it affects us all. So, you deserve to understand the reasoning behind decisions. And, that's why I do the blog: to provide explanations that can be critically questioned by you.
Perhaps the version of the question I most enjoy comes after Western has remained open through a snow storm and involves something like: "Bruce, it's because you came from Green Bay that you won't close Western ... but this is the Pacific Northwest."
I smile because, fact is, I am a native of sunny California; indeed, third generation Golden-Stater, a real rarity. And, once leaving college, most of the rest of my life has been happily lived in the Pacific Northwest.
So, it's not about Bruce. It is about Western. And, as a longtime B'hamer explained to me during last year's snow storm:
"Everybody knows Western never closes."
It's a combination of two considerations. First is the primacy we give to our academic mission. One day closed could mean, for once-a-week seminars or labs, the effective loss of a full week of classes. And, with the pace and brevity of the jam-packed quarter system, that could be 10% of the course.
Second is the fact that we are largely a residential campus. About 80% of our students are within reasonable walking distance of Western or can use public transportation to get to campus.
So there is the basic rationale: we are about learning opportunities and, even in bad weather, we are able to provide those opportunities for the vast majority of the students we exist to serve.
Still, there is understandable confusion.
When we do stay open during a storm, one concern I predictably will hear goes something like: "Why is Western open -- don't you know they shut down the K-12 schools?"
Confusion here comes from an inaccurate analogy. K-12 schools - even neighborhood schools where all the kids could walk to school - face dangers and liabilities if they have classrooms full of kids but without teachers because teachers are stymied by bad roads in outlying areas. K-12 schools, then, must close so that will not happen.
We are not an elementary school. What, then, is the correct analogy?
Our students are adults. Think about what they would be doing if they were not in college: working at banks, insurance offices, retail establishments, construction sites, .... And, certainly, were such venues having to shut down, Western would be shutting down also.
Then, in this thought experiment, if the businesses were not shutting down, these hypothetical Western student analogs would be expected to show up for work. So, too, it is at Western.
Or, as I like to joke: when it's so bad out there that the places we might want to go if classes were canceled are closed (the mall, Old Town Cafe, Avelino's, ... Wild Buffalo), then Western would certainly have had to shut down too.
Of course, the wholesale shut down of commercial enterprises is extremely rare - as rare as Western shutting down.
Perhaps the observation I sometimes hear after a storm and that concerns me most goes something like: "Bruce, you kept Western open -- you don't care about the safety of Western's students."
Certainly, there are that 20% of our students who may not be able to safely get to campus. And, among our 2,200 employees, some of whom commute from as far away as King county. What about them?
Our inclement weather policies can be found on the web. Here, I quote:
Can't safely get to campus? Stay home
Students, faculty and staff who are unable to get to Western because of dangerous conditions may decide to remain home, even if the university is open. Each decision is a personal one and should be made according to individual judgment.
Individual circumstances vary widely. So, individual judgments must be the guide.
And, there's another genuinely aggravating frustration: to slog through tough conditions only to find that a class has been cancelled with no notice. Certainly, we expect all faculty and staff, just as with students, to make individual judgments concerning their safety, and there will be cases where folks cannot get to campus.
But, as our policy requires, faculty are to make every effort to notify students of any class cancellations.
Do make sure -- and this may vary by class -- that folks understand beforehand the communication means that will be used in the case of cancellations: email, texting, Twitter, Canvas, ... Might be a thoughtful addition to every syllabus.
So, lots of nuances. Perhaps more than most have needed to think about. Bottom line, I think, comes down to attitude: keeping our cool. Tough weather is just that: tough. There will be problems and inconveniences. We need to take care of each other and certainly know that some frustrations are inevitably going to be part of the package.
And, I want to conclude with a loud shout out to our Physical Plant and grounds crew colleagues who, when weather turns bad, are out there in the cold (all night, all day as necessary) trying to keep the campus as safe as possible.