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Safety concerns lead to snow days at MVNU

MVNU has canceled classes and closed campus three days this semester due to extreme winter weather.

Main campus was closed this semester on Jan 21, 30 and Feb 20 and was delayed opening on Jan 31.

Dr. Barney Cochran, vice president for academic affairs, is the man behind the decision to close down main campus. Rev. Eric Stetler, vice president for Graduate and Professional Studies (GPS) and dean of the school of GPS, decides to close for GPS classes. They often work with each other and MVNU President Dr. Henry Spaulding to make these decisions.

When bad weather hits the area, Dr. Cochran has to decide if campus needs to close.

“I pose myself the question, “Is it reasonably safe for students, faculty and staff to travel to campus at this time under these conditions?” said Cochran. “I say “reasonably safe,” because in truth we take risks every time we get in a car or hit the sidewalk, but we learn to manage those risks for ourselves. I try to provide a reasonable second layer of risk management for those who travel to and across our campus. A secondary question I have learned to ask myself is informed by my station in life as a parent of sons who recently went off to college. I find it useful to wonder, “Would I want my sons driving to school today under these conditions?”

Cochran does not work alone in making his decision to close campus. He is in communication with Tony Edwards, director of facilities operations.

“Our practice is to make decisions about opening the school day by 6 a.m.,” said Cochran. “Sometime around 5:20 a.m., I call or text my colleague Tony Edwards, unless he calls me first. Tony directs facilities operations; it is his responsibility to keep our streets, sidewalks and steps clear and safe as we travel about. Usually by 5:20 a.m., he is already at work or else he is driving around east of campus. He is always listening to the local reports and knows if we have a level I-III snow emergency in the county. He tells me what he is seeing on the roads and how the team on campus is doing getting campus ready. He generally gives me a recommendation based on his team’s work and his driving experience.”

Cochran drives on the roads himself before making the final decision to close school for the day. The decision often requires some discussion between multiple people before deciding what to do.

“Sometimes, there are multiple communications between myself and Tony and also with Krista (Krista Hadsell is Cochran’s office manager),” said Cochran. “We discuss and try to reach a consensus as to what is best, but the responsibility rests with me. I then inform the president of the plan; or if I need more input, the president and I have a conversation.”

No official records are kept as to how often the school has been closed, but Cochran believes it happened a lot less in the past.

“My recollection from the early days of my tenure here some 20 years ago is that we rarely closed,” said Cochran. “It seems like it took a minor blizzard or something not far from it. I’m told that during President (Dan) Martin’s tenure (2007-2012), his method for making the call involved driving to work. If he arrived without incident, we stayed open.”

Part of the reason for the increase in cancellations is a change in themakeup of the student body.

“Back in the day, we framed ouridentity as a traditional residential program very much like our neighbor to the east, Kenyon College,”said Cochran. “As I understand it, Kenyon requires its students to live on campus and participate in its residential program. Consequently, Kenyon rarely closes for bad weather. We, on the other hand, have always had a portion of commuter students in our traditional program, and in recent years that portion has grown. I think I am more cognizant of that portion of our student body than I was at the beginning.”

Cochran believes in the importance of student safety.

“I know my thinking has been shaped by events,” said Cochran. “We lost a student in a tragic accident a few years ago, and we have had some other close calls. Those experiences have shaped my approach to managing the risks. President Spaulding has been articulate about our commitment to student safety, and the father in me particularly appreciates that emphasis. Our mission involves shaping students’ lives for lifelong service. For that we need to stay open so we can have class, but we also need to keep students safe. Some days these relative goods are in conflict. When I have been in doubt, I have tended to land on the side of student safety.”

Students are appreciative of the concern for their safety. One of these students is Samantha Langer, a junior psychology major.

“I am a part-time student but also a part of the Pioneer College Caterers staff,” said Langer. “I also commute from Newark every day, so having the snow days on both days I had classes and days I didn’t allowed me to make sure I made it to work safely. With the limited hours, my coworkers and I all could leave earlier than usual, and I was even told not to even come in one day. It was nice knowing that the school and my employers care a lot about my safety.”

Cochran believes the weather itself may just be worse than it has been in the past.

“It may be that we are experiencing more days with challenging weather than before,” said Cochran. “I don’t recall our having to deal with -30 or below temperatures or wind chill so much in the past. In recent years “polar vortex” has entered our vocabulary; from what I have read, these breakdowns of the polar vortex are happening more frequently.”

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