Why faculty and staff work to keep K-State open, no matter the weather

Anderson Hall pokes through the fog of swirling snow and sleet on Feb. 21, 2013 after a major snowstorm dumped eleven inches of snow on Manhattan the previous night. It was the university's first full snow day in years, and the university has only had partial cancellations in the past several years. (Parker Robb | Collegian Media Group)

The cold and snowy weather this semester may seem like a good reason to cancel classes in the eyes of many students, but Cindy Bontrager, vice president of administration and finance, said the campus cancellation policy that Kansas State University follows is standard.

Bontrager, a former K-State student herself, has held many other positions in her time at this university, but she has been involved with the weather and campus closing policy over the last six years.

“Reflecting back on weather-related campus closings, we really have not changed a lot in those 40 years,” Bontrager said. “I think the standards that we use regarding the weather have really been pretty consistent over that time.”

Bontrager explained that because K-State is a land grant institution, the mission of the university has three main on-going activities: instruction, research and service.

“With the instruction part, where we are different from a school district is we don’t build in snow days into our curriculums,” Bontrager said. “Faculty have pretty rigid timelines and expectations that they need to get this material delivered to their students — testing, presentations and so on. When campus is closed, it creates disruptions in the flow.”

While many students may say it is too cold or there is too much snow to get to campus, Bontrager said faculty work around the clock and drive from other towns to get to campus.

Bontrager said 73 percent of K-State employees live within a Manhattan zip code. Of those who live in the surrounding areas, 85 percent are within a “reasonable driving distance” from campus. Around 84 percent of students live in Manhattan, which Bontrager said was a “conservative low estimate.”

One of those students that lives within walking distance of K-State, Gracie Danner, senior in agricultural economics, said the lack of snow days is occasionally manageable.

“I have not been totally upset about some of the days classes were not canceled,” Danner said. “If we have the staff and crews to get everything clear prior to the first class of the day, absolutely we should be in class.”

However, Danner also said she believes the K-State campus is not equipped with enough staff or equipment to clear sidewalks and roads in time for class or to keep them clear throughout the day.

“I believe we need to have discussions with their [Manhattan] road crews on how quickly they will be able to get roads cleared, as many students drive to campus,” Danner said. “I wish that K-State had a set of standards that they closed based upon rather than simply being at the discretion of leadership. This would make reasoning for closure or being open more clear and fair.”

Bontrager said there are many people who assist with making weather-based decisions.

“We have police officers who are out also patrolling,” Bontrager said. “They’re driving the streets so they are able to give us good assessments of the conditions. Our emergency management coordinator also reaches out to the emergency management folks in the county, and getting as much information as we can so that we can make a good, well informed, wise decision when we are considering what we need to do with campus.”

Bontrager said she agrees ice is a big challenge on campus, as it is hard to predict and causes difficulty for both walking and driving. This affects students getting to class even if they live on or close to campus.

“Last month, when we had that very awful day with all the ice … we still had classes,” Matt Heinen, junior in mass communications, said. “I don’t live far from campus, but I still have to drive there, and the driving on ice is not a good thing.”

Due to budget cuts, Bontrager said it has been a challenge to make sure campus is clear and safe for students. K-State tries to compensate with equipment so workers can do their job more efficiently.

Paxton Gordon, sophomore in mass communications, said he is not a fan of how snow days are currently being determined by the administration.

“I feel it would be safer to formally close school in the event of weather instead of having it open, then relying on ‘judgment’ to get you through,” Gordon said. “You could possibly be hit by a car or have another event that is not in your control happen to you.”

Gordon added that his living situation puts him at risk for accidents involving other drivers.

“I live off-campus in a fraternity where I have to walk to school every day or drive, depending on what I feel,” Gordon said. “When bad weather is prominent, I have to take risks on what I do since something bad could happen to me.”

Bontrager said the university has learned that it needs to do a better job communicating with students as they transition from high school. Students may not realize the differences between snow days at a high school versus at a university, she said.

“They have this expectation that when we they see snow outside, we’re going to have a snow day,” Bontrager said, “and unfortunately for them, that is not what happens at a university.”

Bontrager added that businesses do not close during snowy weather nearly as often as K-12 schools do.

“We all have different perceptions; we are never going to agree with the standards that have been put in place for campus closures,” Bontrager said. “But we need to think about why our students are here. They are here to get educated and go out into the workforce. What are those employers going to expect of our students?”

Bontrager said the university is currently working on a web page with the Division of Communications and Marketing. This web page will help to tell students, staff and faculty what the university’s expectations are regarding inclement weather.