With the balmy spring breezes of the outage of the past few days, it is easy to forget the polar vortex that swept the eastern United States last week, marking the beginning of February in Poughkeepsie with sub-zero temperatures. This unprecedented cold snap kept many Vassar students holed up in their rooms, apprehensive about facing weather advertised as capable of bringing on frostbite in mere minutes. Even as we experienced temperatures low enough to warrant emails titled “Hazardous Weather Alert” from the Security Office and levels of snowfall sufficient for local school delays, the College did not declare a campus-wide closure or delay. Trekking to class in chilling conditions prompted some students to wonder: Would everyone be warmer, cozier and—most important—safer if the school were to keep days on reserve in the case of severe weather or dangerous travel conditions?
According to an emailed statement by Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Music Jonathan Chenette, canceling all classes when administrative offices close is a decision up to his sole discretion, but some professors do not appreciate it when he does so. Chenette recalled the one time he cancelled classes during his 10 years as dean, relating: “[A] number of faculty members complained because they lived nearby, could get to class fairly easily, and did not want to have their course schedules disrupted.” If he were to cancel classes, Chenette continued, it would only be in severely hazardous conditions, such as falling trees or power outages. Ultimately, faculty members who choose to cancel class are responsible both for notifying their students directly and for making up the missed instruction time.
We suggest that faculty members’ resistance to mandated snow days comes as no surprise considering Vassar’s condensed schedule. According to Chenette, “[Vassar is] in accordance with New York State regulations, federal regulations, and the practices of most of our peers,” specifically with the College’s 15-week semester length; nevertheless, many students consider courses to feel rushed, and professors frequently seem hard-pressed to allocate adequate time to each topic while also allowing for in-class discussion and questions. Given the challenge of covering the material, professors may feel pressure to hold classes in risky weather conditions lest their decision to cancel come at the expense of their own syllabi.
Indeed, as Chenette noted, some professors might find it easy to get to campus, but others live farther away and thus have to navigate dangerous roads after nights of heavy snowfall. Such a situation is not only nerve-wracking but also potentially life-threatening: From 2011 to 2015, New York State was one of only six states with annual rates of deadly car accidents at 40 or above (USA Today, “Winter car accidents are a deadly weather hazard,” 02.06.2017). Given these concerns, we urge the Office of the Dean of the Faculty to more rigorously collect data on faculty opinions toward mandated snow days and, if responses suggest it would be beneficial to professor well-being, consider putting into effect a
policy of student and faculty review. One such example may be seen at Cornell University, which implemented a campus-wide shutdown from March 13 to 15, 2017 (Cornell Faculty and Students, “What Staff and Faculty Have to Say,” 03.24.2017). Dean of the Faculty Charlie Van Loan solicited input from students and faculty afterward, and responses were conflicting. Many of the complaints stemmed from the late notice, as the school notified the campus at noon; others felt that closing was well-advised, as the roads were not safely navigable. Ultimately, the school ruled that the conditions were dangerous enough to warrant closure. While Vassar may not experience the same hazardous lake-effect snow seen “up North” in Ithaca, the College might still do well to consider longer-term shutdowns— or shutdowns in the first place.
Even barring a change in snow-day legislation, problems presented by dangerous conditions could be mitigated if the College provided professors and students with more instructional days. If professors had increased leeway to cover the same amount of material, they could better space out topics in their syllabi, allowing for more indepth class discussions—as well as for the possibility of cancellations without significant curricular description. Similarly, assignments could be less densely distributed over the semester, allowing students even slightly more time to focus on extracurriculars, self-care and professional development, all aspects of college life that too often seem to fall by the wayside in the faceof encroaching deadlines.
One untapped avenue for extra instruction time is Vassar’s winter break, often considered by students to be notoriously lengthy. If the College were to trim winter break and implement, say, an extra week of instruction on either end, professors could cancel classes in the face of unexpected circumstances without guilt—and as an added benefit, students with campus jobs would be able to continue earning. Undoubtedly, there are a myriad of factors to be taken into account with any curricular or scheduling change, particularly one as drastic as tacking on extra weeks at the expense of vacation time. While more space in which to spread out their curricula could benefit professors, pushing back the dates of study week and final examinations could also cut into the time allotted to grade finals and submit final evaluations, potentially causing undue added stress. Given such considerations, robust and intentional data collection from both students and professors is necessary to determine the drawbacks and advantages offered by mandating snow days, adding extra teaching days or both. Given Vassar’s upcoming curricular changes, now is an apt time to conduct such a self-study—preferably before the next polar vortex hits.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.