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Thursday, November 27, 2014

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Alexander Hermann: It's snow good

By Alexander Hermann, Columnist
Published January 16, 2014

Rightfully, students at the University value numerous campus traditions, from painting the rock, to football Saturdays, to commencement at the Big House. In short, this is a tradition-rich school. Through our participation in these activities, our enrollment and the maize and blue attire we don, we demonstrate Wolverine pride in support of such traditions.

But not all Michigan traditions are created equal.

Specifically, I’m referring to the University’s customary refusal to close down for extreme winter weather — which hasn’t occurred since 1978 — especially when hundreds of schools and every other peer-institution across the state shut their doors.

Michigan received its latest test last Monday and Tuesday, as cities across Southeast Michigan saw record-low temperatures, astonishing wind chills and virtually impassable roads due to snow and ice. Although regular classes didn’t begin until Wednesday, some graduate seminars had begun and thousands of staff members were still expected to report for work.

Fortunately, there’s some hope that this policy — for lack of a better word — might soon be overturned in favor of a superior tradition: common sense, good judgment and a concern for student safety.

On Monday, University Provost Martha Pollack announced the creation of a committee to review the University’s entirely nonexistent procedure for shutting down when extreme inclement weather strikes. According to Pollack, the University currently has no guidelines for determining essential and nonessential staff in cases of extreme weather, and thus “doesn’t have the appropriate mechanisms (to close), even if we wanted to.”

You read correctly — the University possesses no means of dealing with severe weather.

The shortsightedness demonstrated by a major university situated in a state where heavy snowfalls and extreme temperatures are inevitable several times per winter is absolutely dumbfounding. The snow and cold aren’t unforeseeable, unthinkable or inconceivable outcomes, regardless of inch or degree.

And demanding basic policies to deal with inevitabilities isn’t an onerous request.

Further, the defense of this tradition doesn’t hold any weight. Even if the University isn’t exactly a commuter school, a significant percentage of students — especially graduate students — live far off campus, and an even greater number of faculty and staff drive to work every day.

Additionally, for two days before classes started, a majority of master’s students at the Ford School of Public Policy — totaling over 100 students — attended the program’s Integrated Policy Exercise, a three-day simulation of a real-life contemporary policy problem. Many students, including regular commuters and travelers returning from Winter Break, had to decide between braving the worst of the polar vortex and missing IPE entirely. Students missing day one had to disenroll from the class.

Fortunately, with only minor alterations to the class, IPE continued as planned. The worst consequences for students were minor scheduling inconveniences, one fewer credit hour and the need to take IPE next year alternatively for most students who missed the program. Otherwise, IPE was undoubtedly a success.

What becomes clear for the University, however, is the need to break with tradition and establish something new. Reasonable, clear and effective — hell, I might even take existent — procedures are needed to deal with the very predictable problem of hazardous weather hitting Ann Arbor.

Alexander Hermann can be reached at ahermm@umich.edu.


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