FEBRUARY 17, 2014


Questions to the President.

From Gordon Novak (professor, computer science):
  UT has responded to the recent ice storm events, but in some cases has failed to notify UT faculty, staff, and students of closures in a timely manner.

The messages on my phone for Jan. 28 illustrate the problem:
     4:55 AM: UT open for normal operations today
     8:20 AM: UT closed until noon
     11:26 AM: UT is now closed for the day.These were the right calls, but not timely. By 8:20, most staff would be      at UT or traveling to UT. At 11:26, I had already arrived at campus to prepare for my 12:30 class.

I have spoken with Bob Harkins about this. Although some changes have been made, I believe UT should adopt policies based on two principles:
  1. Given that weather forecasts are not always accurate, and acknowledging that closure has a cost, UT should err on the side of safety for faculty, staff, and students. Since employees and students feel pressure to come to campus if it is open, a delayed announcement of closure may cause some people to attempt travel to campus when it is unsafe.
  2. In nearly all cases, UT should give notice at least 1.5 hours ahead of each change in open or closed status.
This would include, for example:
     Notification by 6:30 AM (or, preferably, in time for the 10 o'clock news the night before if forecasts warrant) of a      closure until 10 AM (6:30 being 1.5 hours before a work start time of 8:00 AM).

     Notification by 8:30 AM if the 10 AM closure is to be extended to 12.

     Notification by 10:30 AM if the 12:00 closure is to be extended.

A precautionary closure until 10 AM has a relatively low cost if the weather event turns out to be a false alarm. The cost is mitigated by the facts that Austin weather often improves during the morning and that these ice events are rare in Austin.

Coordination with the many local agencies is useful for making the best decisions. However, coordination should not be allowed to delay timely notification; when uncertain, a delay of a few hours should be announced in a timely fashion to allow gathering more information.

Will UT adopt policies that provide timely notification of weather closures?

Thank you.

President Powers described the process the University goes through when inclement weather threatens the area. He introduced Patricia L. Clubb (vice president for University operations), Gerald R. (Bob) Harkins (associate vice president for campus safety and security), and Troy M. Kimmel (meteorologist and senior lecturer, geography and the environment), who are on the team of decision-makers that include leaders of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and the City of Austin. President Powers explained that during a weather event, this team communicates every fifteen minutes or so diligently keeping the administration up-to-date. Finally, in conjunction with the City of Austin and AISD, a decision is made on whether or not to close the University. He commented further that it is very difficult to keep the University open if AISD and surrounding school districts close because faculty and staff members have to find alternative care for their under-age children on very short notice. President Powers stressed that the team makes every effort to get the word out to the University community in a timely and efficient manner.

President Powers spoke specifically about one of the recent weather events that occurred on February 28, a very unusual weather phenomenon and especially difficult to predict. A decision to keep the University open had been made, but ultimately the decision had to be reversed as the weather deteriorated during the morning. In hindsight, the initial decision to open the University was wrong, but the president acknowledged that lessons are learned in such situations. He realized the need for the University to sort out how to handle situations such as the 9:30 am Tuesday classes when there is a delayed opening of the University to 10:00 am and to give “crisper instructions to students and faculty.” He cited the law school policy as an example saying classes start on the half-hour, and if the school were not to open at the start of classes, then classes would not meet. However, President Powers encouraged feedback on how to handle Tuesday/Thursday (TTH) classes that meet for one and one-half hours—the University is closed for the first half-hour of the class, should it meet for the remainder of the hour—that is the question, to start classes or not start classes?

Vice President Clubb said that UT Austin has a security committee that has been meeting for eight years and had developed policies that deal with emergency situations that are unpredictable such as active shooters, hazardous spills on IH35, and weather. Associate Vice President Harkins chairs the committee, which has representatives from all of the major offices on the campus—approximately twenty-five—including the provost and president’s offices. She explained that in a weather event such as the one on February 28, from the Emergency Operations Center, city departments, such EMS, Fire, APD, TxDot, Roads and Bridges, give reports to approximately one hundred participants involved in the decision-making process. The participants follow the lead of the five big stakeholders—UT Austin, AISD, the county, the city, and Austin Community College.

Vice President Clubb agreed with President Powers that the University and all five stakeholders made a bad call on February 28. She emphasized that it was a difficult situation where the weather forecast did not evolve as expected. She went on to describe process improvements that will be implemented in the future. To help the team make better informed decisions when dealing with unpredictable weather situations, at 4:00 am when the stakeholders have made a decision on whether to close offices, there will be follow-up conference calls every thirty to forty-five minutes to see if the weather is developing as predicted. Dr. Clubb said she believed this plan would help the team in making their decisions.

In reference to Professor Novak’s recommendation that “In nearly all cases, UT should give notice at least 1.5 hours ahead of each change in open or closed status,” Vice President Clubb commented that the hour and a half is already built into the policy and that to her knowledge, the committee has only missed it once—on February 28, which was the result of a bad call.

Associate Vice President Harkins said that the February 28 incident offered a good opportunity to review the procedures and to “hone them into being more efficient and responsible.” He described events as they unfolded that morning, discussions with city leaders and the final decision to close the University for the day. He said that he and his team would be happy to consider any suggestions for improvement as the entire campus is affected by these events.

Vice President Clubb informed the Council that because two Tuesdays had been impacted by late openings, the language had been changed to permit faculty and students to decide whether or not the class should commence at 10:00 so that only thirty minutes would be lost rather than the full hour and a half, which is dependent upon faculty members being able to contact their students, sometimes with very short notice. She again asked faculty members to send suggestions that might make the process better.  

Professor Wayne Rebhorn (English) said that one of his Tuesday classes could not meet because of the closures, but he had been successful in contacting his students through Blackboard for the other class, and they had been able to meet for forty-five minutes. In response to Dr. Clubb’s request for suggestions, Professor Rebhorn suggested that makeup days be offered over a couple of Saturday mornings, similar to what is done in the north east when schools are closed for snow days. He said for some faculty members, they had essentially lost a whole week’s worth of work, which was really serious.  

President Powers thanked Dr. Rebhorn for his excellent suggestion. He added that he did not mean to imply that cancelling the whole class is the right policy; he was only suggesting that the options ought to be made clear to the faculty and students. He expounded on this saying it might not be worthwhile to hold a MWF class if a half hour had been lost, on the other hand, for a TTH class it might make more sense. He indicated that he would prefer clear-cut rules that could be implemented and added that he would like feedback from faculty and students regarding possible make up days, whether it be on a Saturday or at the end of the semester on a dead day.  

Professor Alberto (Al) A. Martinez (history) changed the subject from the weather by asking a question about Shared Services. He questioned what percentage of the savings from Shared Services would go toward staff raises? He preceded the question by referencing the president’s 2013 State of the University Address; Dr. Martinez said he appreciated the president’s comments regarding staff and raises. He also referred to the February Council meeting and comments from the Staff Council representative who spoke on Shared Services saying that staff looked forward to raises they might get from savings resulting from the implementation of Shared Services. Dr. Martinez pointed out that the draft Shared Services plan did not specify raises for staff.

President Powers responded to Dr. Martinez saying that the savings from Shared Services would occur over several years and that no commitment on how to use the savings had been made, whether toward faculty hiring, staff hiring, or staff raises. He stated that he and his team would evaluate the priorities and determine how the savings would be used. He opined that staff and faculty compensation policies would certainly be high on the priority list as UT Austin is falling behind on our faculty and staff, both in benefits and salaries—making it difficult to remain competitive in hiring and retention.  

Returning to the issue of University closures due to inclement weather, Professor Brian L. Evans (electrical and computer engineering) said the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering scheduled labs on Fridays and losing half a day had proven to be difficult. President Powers concurred that it would be hard to make up for lost lab time.  

Dr. Blinda McClelland (lecturer, biology) asked if students and hourly employees would be compensated for work time lost due to the closures, if so, how would it be handled? President Powers responded saying he didn’t have an answer but that he would look into it.

Professor Maria A. Wade (anthropology) commented that the lost class days ought to be made up and suggested that if given enough time prior to the notice of closure, students might be able to do some of the lab work at home; she also suggested “flipping” the classroom using one-hour videos to make up some of the lost time. President Powers agreed that using technology might be part of the solution.

Professor Novak commented that if the administration wants to prevent faculty and staff from traveling in unsafe conditions, then they must be informed of closures before leaving for work and that ought to be factored in to when closure announcements are made. President Powers agreed with Dr. Novak and said ideally that is what the team aims for. He reiterated that notices of University closures are scrolled on local television stations as early as 5:00 am, which is usually before faculty and staff members leave home for work.

Mr. Kimmel shared his views of the morning of February 28 saying that it had been a very long night. He explained that in these situations, two meteorologists are always on call. He gave the details of the events leading up to the closure saying that initially, the threat of precipitation had been very low but at 5:45 the precipitation developed over the area. He clarified that they had not been watching a system move into the area from the hill country, but instead, it was a system that “developed on top of us.” At that point, both he and the Weather Service forecaster were getting nervous and decided to talk with the team of stakeholders. Mr. Kimmel said that in that case, instead of being proactive, they had to be reactive because the weather forecast went wrong. He said that he was very proud of Associate Vice President Harkins and the safety and security group, but that they are always looking for better ways, which comes from feedback from administrators, faculty, staff and students, and that he appreciated everyone’s comments.  

President Powers closed the discussion by thanking Mr. Kimmel, Dr. Clubb, Mr. Harkins, and everybody at AISD and the city for working through the night doing their best to keep the campus safe under such unpredictable conditions.

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