Cornell committee to review bad-weather policy following closing of campus during Valentine's Day snowstorm

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Following the closing of the campus on Feb. 14 due to heavy snow, Executive Vice President Stephen Golding and Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman are forming an ad hoc committee at the request of President David Skorton to review the university's inclement weather policy (see box).

'We will do our best to understand the issues raised': Opperman

The ad hoc committee that will review the university's inclement-weather policy and the petition asking the university to reassess that policy will be led by Executive Vice President Stephen Golding and Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman. Other committee members will include Vice Presidents Susan Murphy, Kyu Wang and Rich McDaniel; Dean of the Faculty Charles Walcott; a representative from the Provost's Office; two deans; a representative from the Employee Assembly; Michael Esposito, employee-elected trustee; and Thomas R. Bruce, director of the Law School's Legal Information Institute, who drafted the petition.

"We appreciate the fact that people have expressed their views, and we look forward to finding out more about their concerns," said Opperman. "We will do our best to understand the issues raised and respond to them."The committee will review a report prepared by Golding that assesses the procedures followed during the Feb. 14 snowstorm, the issues raised in the petition and the university's current inclement-weather procedures.

The committee will submit its report to President David Skorton.

The committee also will review a petition sent to the president, Provost Biddy Martin and Golding asking them to re-examine policies "concerning extreme-weather closures and the way it carries out those policies." The online petition, which was circulated Feb. 15, was signed by 1,400 faculty, students and staff, many of them anonymously.

In an interview with Cornell Chronicle editors yesterday, Feb. 21, Golding said that Cornell's policy for inclement weather closings was rigorously followed on Feb. 14, but the timing of the decision to close could have been managed and communicated more effectively.

"The policy as it is, worked. The system worked exactly the way it is intended to work," he said.

The Valentine's Day storm caused the university to close down for the fourth time since 1993. With snow piling up and blizzard-like conditions forecast, employees were sent home at 12:30. The campus reopened at 9 a.m., Feb. 15, with classes beginning at 10:10 a.m.

Although the Tompkins County Sheriff's Office had issued a travel advisory on Feb. 13, the sheriff did not order local roads closed -- historically the final cue for university officials to close the campus. In fact, the storm didn't appear problematic at 3 a.m. when, with six inches of powdery snow on the ground, Golding, with input from university officials, decided to open the university for the 5 a.m. shift. That decision was based, said Golding, on data supplied by the National Weather Service, the sheriff's office and Cornell public safety and facilities personnel.

At 3 a.m. the storm was said to be tracking south, and the 24 to 30 inches of snow predicted would not -- and, in fact, did not -- hit the Ithaca area (16.8 inches fell, which was above the 15.9 inch total for the entire winter season).

A 10: 15 a.m. follow-up call with Golding, who was out of town, was scheduled to re-assess the situation with key administrators. In retrospect, Golding said, the follow-up call should have been scheduled earlier. He also added that the sheriff's travel advisory put Cornell officials in a "gray area," leaving the decisions as to whether or not to come to work up to employees and their supervisors.

"The intensity of the storm escalated between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., and that fooled everybody," said Golding. "One of the lessons learned is we should have had another conference call scheduled at 8:15."

The decision to close was made at about 11 a.m., and a bulk e-mail to the university was issued less than an hour later. However, a technical glitch in the system caused a delay in the electronic announcement.

The petition raises issues different from the university's inclement weather policy, Golding said yesterday. "[For instance] How Cornell designates essential employees and how supervisors make decisions on when employees need to show up for work; and whether or not employees at the low end of the wage scale are put at risk by Cornell weather policy -- those issues are in fact conditions for employment or covered by other policies."

Golding added: "Cornell is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, 52-week-a-year operation. There really is no such thing as a closing. We have students to take care of, animals that need attention, laboratories and buildings that need to be maintained."

Also, on any given day, what designates an essential employee might change, Golding said. If payroll has to be completed, employees in the payroll office are essential, for example.

"[And] We take note of the concern about our employees who have long commuting distances to campus," he said.

Golding said it may help to send a reminder about the university's inclement-weather policy to the campus community in the fall semester.

There have been three campus closures in recent memory: in 1993, 1997 and 1999 (an early closing). The blizzard of 1993 began on Friday evening, March 12, at the tail end of spring break and dumped 30 inches, the largest snowfall recorded on campus within a 24-hour period since 1925. County and state roads were closed for 48 hours. The campus was closed on Monday, March 15.

The storm of 1997 began with 15 inches of snowfall on Jan. 4 with a total accumulation of 24 inches by Jan. 5, making it the second-largest storm of the decade. Cornell closed at noon on Jan. 5, and county and state roads were closed. The university reopened Jan. 6.

In 1999 the university closed early, largely due to snowmelt and flooding.