To Close a College: What Does it Take to Shut Down Campus?

By Graig Graziosi

Photo by Liam Bouquet/The Jambar

If social media is to be believed, a number of Youngstown State University students weren’t happy that school was still in session yesterday.

It is not uncommon to log onto Facebook, Twitter, Yik Yak, et cetera on particularly snowy days and find college students expressing their dissatisfaction with having to traverse a snowbound campus. The unlikely event of YSU closing for inclement weather is such a talking point for students that it has become a joke on social media, with some students posting memes and photos to illustrate the conditions on campus they find most egregious.

Compounding the issue, at 1 p.m. the city of Youngstown issued a city-wide snow emergency “until further notice,” which essentially prohibits all parking on city streets unless certain conditions are met. The parking ban’s purpose is to allow emergency vehicles to pass unhindered through the streets, but the news, after being disseminated by YSU’s emergency alert system, has been used as further ammunition for students critical of the school’s decision to stay open despite the emergency only affecting city parking off campus.

Ron Cole, YSU’s public information officer, explained the various working parts that must come together to decide whether or not to keep the campus open.

“Ultimately it’s [President Tressel] who makes that decision,” Cole said. “Obviously there’s a lot of input that goes into it from various individuals on campus including our facilities department, who has to assess the ability for most people to get here and for people once they’re here to have parking lots that are clean and safe and sidewalks as well that are clean and safe. [Administrators and staff] are in contact with folks from the National Weather Service, local counties’ road crews and things of that sort to make that assessment.”

The YSU Grounds Department, which maintains the grounds and campus facilities, plays a major role in assessing the viability of holding classes during periods of inclement weather. According to John Hyden, the facilities office executive director, workers were out as early as 2 a.m. this morning prepping the campus for students. As for the slick conditions some students experience early in the morning, Hyden explained that early morning instances of heavy snow and ice formation are nearly impossible to completely clean up before students arrive.

“The worst thing that can happen is an early morning blast,” Hyden said. “If we get hit at 6 a.m., it’s nearly impossible to get the entire campus cleaned up before the first classes start.”

Another factor affecting the campus preparations is the number of actual workers available to prep sidewalks, building entrances and parking lots across the 140-acre campus.

“I have 10 guys today, two of which are working afternoon shifts only, and a handful of student employees doing sidewalks and building entrances, for the entire campus,” Hyden said. “Compared to other areas, like downtown, I’d say the crew here does an amazing job getting YSU cleaned up on time for classes.”

In determining whether or not cancellation should be considered, the grounds department monitors a weather forecasting system that specifically reports on YSU’s zip code as well as police and government weather advisories.

“Sometimes a cancellation would be obvious. If we had 18 inches of snow overnight, I’d pick up the phone and tell Tressel there’s no way we can have the campus ready and we’d need to cancel. But that’s not common,” Hyden said. “Now, today the city of Youngstown issued a snow emergency, but that’s essentially just a parking ban. If a travel emergency was issued by the city or police in any of the three counties we serve — one that makes it illegal to drive unless there’s an emergency — then we’d cancel.”

Cole further explained the significance the range of locations that both faculty and students commute from to get to campus plays into the process of deciding a cancellation.

“Part of what’s factored in is that we have people coming from all around. We have to consider the weather conditions from a pretty wide geographical area,” Cole said. “We have people who work here, go to school here, coming from [areas like] Pittsburgh or Cleveland on a daily basis we have to consider.”

Another consideration may be overlooked by students in regards to class cancellation is that students — and taxpayers — pay for the college to operate, prompting those in charge of cancelling the school to do everything possible to keep classes open despite poor weather conditions.

“Obviously safety is the primary and biggest consideration, but the other thing to consider is that in our situation we have students who have paid tuition to attend school here, so we think it’s important if it’s safe or we can make it safe — since we do live in northeast Ohio and get weather here — that we try our best to make the campus as safe and accessible as possible so we can hold classes as planned,” Cole said.

Hyden echoed Cole’s remarks, suggesting students may benefit from a shift in perspective when considering the implications of cancelling YSU.

“You can’t compare YSU with a K-12 school. This isn’t K-12. It’s a business. Students are paying to be here, so we need to provide that service to the best of our ability. … If you work at a business, you’re expected to go in unless there’s a disaster,” Hyden said. “Plus, if we were to shut down the campus, that means we shut down the campus. Basketball games, campus activities, campus events — those all get cancelled too. So it’s a lot to consider.”

One of the major complaints from students during instances of dangerous weather is centered on the potential for students to lose points in their classes if they choose not to drive due to safety concerns. Hyden agrees that there should be a better system in place for dealing with such instances that wouldn’t force the entire campus to close.

“If you aren’t comfortable driving, then you shouldn’t drive. The problem some students run into though is that they’re worried professors will knock points off them for not showing up to class,” Hyden said. “I think we need a policy that considers honest students who really would have to face dangerous driving situations due to where they live to take some of that pressure off them. Obviously that could be abused, but it’s worth considering for the sake of student safety.”