How’s the Weather at UW? The Art and Duty of Accepting Limits

David Porreca, FAUW President

In this week’s blog post, I shall address the pros and cons of UW’s Weather Closing policy. Last week’s decision by the University not to close during the severe weather conditions provoked widespread befuddlement and outrage campus-wide.  Notes posted to UW’s main web page reassured students that they would not be penalized for not attending on account of the weather. This provision was particularly salient because of the importance of claiming seats in classes during the very first week of term.

Subsequently, a memo dated 9 January 2014 from the Provost was circulated to the campus community indicating that “snow and ice accumulation on local traffic routes is the central factor in the decision-making process” in determining whether to close our campus’ operations due to the weather.  This particular factor is mentioned nowhere in the university’s published guidelines, and is revealing in terms of its emphasis on infrastructure rather than people.  The same memo indicates that the Provost is assembling a group to “consider implementing a broader approach in future.”  Faculty representation on this working group is essential, and it is a key request that FAUW will be making when the matter is discussed at this week’s Faculty Relations Committee meeting.

There are three main concerns at work here:

“When half the students come and half don’t, when some colleagues cancel and some don’t, it’s actually worse than when the central administration makes a decision to close campus for a snow day.”
  1. The work-life balance issue of having local schools and childcare facilities close, including UW’s own daycare facility, no less – while our campus remains open.  All members of the campus community who have children – faculty, staff and students – either have to make special childcare arrangements (often expensive or difficult to find) or bring their kids to campus, which is not likely to boost productivity, nor is it much fun for anyone involved.
  2. There is also the safety issue unrelated to roads: is there a health warning associated with the weather?
  3. Finally, there are the logistical consequences of leaving the decision up to the good judgement of each individual (the guidelines linked above says that “faculty, staff and students are reminded that they are responsible for determining when weather conditions make their travel unsafe”: is everyone likely to be very late? When half the students come and half don’t, when some colleagues cancel and some don’t, it’s actually worse than when the central administration makes a decision to close campus for a snow day.

Now, I realise the expense and difficulties involved in declaring a closure when that teaching time must be made up elsewhere in the term.  Also, there is always the risk of declaring closure due to forecasts predicting imminent tempests that don’t manifest.  Considering the three main concerns mentioned above, would not a judicious application of the precautionary principle be advisable?  If work-life balance, the mental health and physical health of our campus community are true priorities at UW, human factors such as personal safety, the cancellation of school buses and the closure of local school boards should be part of the decision-making process, not just the measurable quantity of snow on the roads.  Here is yet another example of something that has value (mental & physical health), yet because it is more difficult to measure than the quantity of snow on the ground, only the latter gets attention and prioritization.

UW may wish to portray itself as invincible in the face of any and all adversity, but such an attitude betrays a lack of acknowledgement of the limits, human and logistical, experienced by the people directly involved.  FAUW looks forward to assisting in the drafting of a new, more humane closure policy.

For more on this topic, please see the blog entry by former FAUW Vice-President, Aimée Morrison at Hook & Eye.

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