Cancelled classes result in loss of instruction, finances

President Cohon has proposed the idea of a university-based task force to help the city figure out how to deal with future weather-related events. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor) President Cohon has proposed the idea of a university-based task force to help the city figure out how to deal with future weather-related events. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor)

Last Monday through Wednesday, Carnegie Mellon canceled classes for the first time since 2003 — and for the first three-day period in the university’s history.

In a move that might have seemed a bit out of character for Carnegie Mellon, the university’s administration identified the safety risk inherent in a blizzard of the magnitude that swept through Pittsburgh last week, and put classes on hold.

How is the official decision to cancel classes made? “The city recommended that colleges and universities close, and we complied with that request,” explained Michael Murphy, vice president for campus affairs, the individual who makes the final decision to close the school or remain open on a snow day.

“It is never an easy decision to cancel classes, and it is rare that we do so,” Murphy said in a Feb. 10 e-mail to The Tartan. “It is certainly not ideal to have to cancel classes, ever, and we hope to get the campus back to normal as soon as possible.”
While the decision to close was an important one made with the consideration of campus community members’ safety, three days of missed classes could mean significant money out of students’ pockets.

First-year tuition is $40,300 and there are 70 school days in a semester, meaning that first-year students pay roughly $287 per day of instruction. Three fewer days of school means about $861 worth of instruction has been lost — unless those days are made up later.

There is no official decision yet from the university as to whether the missed days will be made up later in the semester, but Murphy said it would be “premature” to rule out such an option. Murphy explained that because course syllabi are already designed, “the handling of missed class time is at the discretion of the individual faculty teaching each course.”

While their responses to the three-day cancellation period are varied, several professors are responding to the snow days by making little, if any, change, to their semester plans. Professor Roger Rouse, an associate teaching professor in the department of history, has tried to limit changes to his original course plans. “I’ve told students that we’ll keep to the original schedule of lectures and readings (i.e., that we won’t drop or postpone later topics to go back over what we were meant to cover this week) but that I plan to weave key points concerning this week’s topics into my next few lectures,” said Rouse in an e-mail to The Tartan.

Rouse acknowledged that the decision to cancel was likely a difficult one on the part of the university administration, and that such sweeping decisions often have case-by-case consequences.

“I don’t have enough information to give informed advice about how the university should address the problems created by the cancellations,” said Rouse, “but my guess is that the best thing it can do is to encourage professors to respond in ways that are sensitive to the challenges students face on a course-by-course basis.”

Laurie Eisenberg, another associate teaching professor in the same department, demonstrated how even within the same academic area, professors are adjusting distinctly to the three-day cancellation last week. “I will be deciding whether to strike one week’s topic from the syllabus entirely or whether to move more quickly than I had planned and still fit everything in,” Eisenberg said.
“Students have no idea how long instructors labor over their syllabi,” she said.

In the true nature of Carnegie Mellon, President Jared Cohon has proposed the idea of a university-based task force to help the city figure out how to deal with such weather emergencies in the future, according to an article published last week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The group would be composed of Carnegie Mellon faculty, staff, and students from departments across campus. Pittsburgh City Councilman William Peduto said Cohon offered free services to design a modernized route system, including a feature where residents can track snow plows online.

The offer includes help from the engineering and computer science departments, the Heinz College, and other Carnegie Mellon departments. It would take several months and collaboration between mulitple schools to develop a plan that could be presented to City Council.

While the task of combating two significant blizzards is indeed a mammoth one, there is a pervasive sentiment city-wide that city officials did not do enough to deal with the inclement weather. “We as a university, and as a city,” Murphy said, “simply cannot risk such a situation in the future.”