Snow decisions: guiding principles

Chancellors and school superintendents have something in common. We all hate snow. The weather reports don’t provide much help. Just think how many loaves of bread and bottles of milk get bought around here only to sit unfulfilled in the kitchen as nothing materializes.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., Chief Jeff McCracken surveyed the campus, talked directly to weather personnel, and recommended that we go ahead with class. Chapel Hill Transit was planning to go forward on schedule, and the predictions were for 1 to 2 inches of snow. I accepted his recommendation, and we tried to go ahead. Jeff and his folks did a fantastic job on Tuesday in a difficult situation.

As everyone now knows, things got dicey around 9 a.m. or so. The snow lasted much longer and was more intense than predicted. At that point, people were already trying to make their way to campus, so we decided it was not a good idea to send folks back out until everything calmed down. Around noon, we decided that it was best not to have evening classes and that a two-hour delay made sense for Wednesday. We decided it was a good idea to cancel class starting at 3:30 p.m. so that students and faculty might make their way home before employees started going home at 5 p.m..

Not surprisingly, we got a lot of feedback about our decision-making on this. However, most of this feedback had the benefit of hindsight that we didn’t have at the time these decisions were made. Since we’ll probably have some more weather events, I thought it made sense to lay out some of the guiding principles that we have regarding snow and ice decisions.

1. Safety first. If most folks are walking or using Chapel Hill Transit and we have a good reason to expect the major roads in to be passable, then we’re going ahead. If we feel it is unsafe to walk on campus, if Chapel Hill Transit is not running, or we have evidence that the roads in are unsafe, then we’ll likely suspend class.

2. Class time is precious. We spend $2B per year provided by taxpayers, students and their families, and generous private donors in order to hold class. So, we don’t cancel class lightly. If we have a decent chance of getting in a sizable chunk of the school day, then we need to try to do it.

3. Be sensitive to employees. Our Adverse Weather Policy requires that most non-faculty employees be responsible for their regular duties and make up any time they miss within a year. But, at the same time, we encourage employees to make their own decisions about coming to work, based on how they feel about their personal safety. There are other employees who are considered “emergency” workers, and they have to be here. Just think about all that the workers in grounds and facilities did to make campus safe and passable for the rest of us.

4. Minimize traffic. Nobody in the Triangle wants to relive what happened in 2005 when 0.5 inches of snow caused 12 hours of gridlock because everybody tried to go home at exactly the same time. So, once we decide to go ahead with class, then we’re not going to send people back home until later in the day. That’s why we chose the 3:30 pm – 10 am window to suspend class.

5. Have fun. We know there were a lot of sleds on campus that had been gathering dust for four years. We loved the snowman in the Old Well and all that. My dog had fun chasing our sledding students on the Frisbee golf course behind the Chancellor’s residence. But having fun in the snow is a distant #5 on this list: One person who came to complain about the fact that we were having class, even fessed up that the reason he wanted us to cancel was so he could play in the snow. We get that, but see #2 for why this isn’t further up the list.

The bottom line is this. We’re going to go ahead with class unless we’re reasonably sure it’s not a good idea. Once we go ahead, we’re going to do our best to try to get everyone home safely.

Here’s hoping the next snow comes on the weekend.


  1. 1

    The fact that the 6am decision was based on an expectation of “1-2 inches” of snow was as ridiculous then as it is looking back. For several days, we had been hearing 3-5″ and then 4-6″.

    I’m glad I am no longer working on campus, and was not expected to go out in the snow. I am disappointed that my girlfriend, a student, had her safety put as risk by being required to go in, then leave again, rather than stay off the road completely.

  2. 2

    As a member of University staff, I arrived to work at 8am on Tuesday and had no problems getting to work from my home in Durham. I arrived at my office only to find more than half of the staff absent.
    If you take it easy and don’t slam on your brakes, there’s nothing to worry out about.
    Good call, Chancellor Thorp. We have too much to do to let a little snow hold us back! :)