As the first of 15 inches of snow blanketed campus on a cold February Monday four years ago, thousands of Yale students received a once-in-a-generation e-mail.
Classes were cancelled, then-Provost Susan Hockfield wrote, and with a free day off, students headed back to bed. But 90 minutes later came another e-mail, this time from University Secretary Linda Lorimer. Classes had not been cancelled after all. The first e-mail, she said, was a hoax — and the closest Yale has come to a snow day in recent memory.
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Despite its location in the heart of snowstorm-prone New England, Yale almost never cancels classes due to the weather — much to the chagrin of the scores of Elis who are forced to brave the elements and trek to class on days when schoolchildren all around them sleep in. But because Yale is a residential environment that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the University cannot shut down, no matter how severe the weather, officials said this week.
Last week’s snowstorm dropped just a few inches of snow and sleet on the New Haven area, but the University has been known to withstand far more in terms of winter weather without shutting down. The University last closed more than a quarter-century ago, and even that snow day came only after Connecticut’s governor ordered the state to shut down.
Class: “Not merely a fair-weather activity”
Last Wednesday’s snowstorm — the first of the winter for the New Haven area — brought a reminder to Yale faculty and staff that even when many institutions do close down because of the weather, Yale stays up and running. In the event of snow, non-essential staff can request permission to leave early, and if granted, they must use their personal or sick days to head home, according to the University’s official weather policy. Otherwise, the University rolls on as usual.
“Yale doesn’t close since we are responsible for so many activities that must continue 24/7 — ranging from providing medical services to caring for those who reside here,” Associate Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Rob Schwartz said in the e-mail sent to faculty and staff the afternoon of the storm.
While faculty sometimes cancel classes because of the weather, most professors choose to brave the elements, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said in an e-mail.
“Although I would not ask someone to jeopardize his health or safety in order to teach or attend class, it is the case that like most faculty members at Yale, I have never cancelled a class because of the weather,” Salovey said. “It is important to recognize that education is not merely a fair-weather activity!”
But for some, the dangers of getting to Yale put a damper on teaching, regardless of professional enthusiasm. One chemistry professor said she cancelled her lab class last Wednesday because of the hazardous driving conditions. Students did not seem inconvenienced by the cancellation and ensuing make-up arrangements, she said.
Technically, the university secretary has the power to close the University, although it has not been a power past secretaries have chosen to exercise freely. Sheila Wellington EPH ’68 GRD ’68, who served as secretary from 1987 to 1993, said it was simply a traditional duty of the secretary, like deciding when flags should be flown at half-staff.
“I never did call for the school to be closed during my time as secretary,” Wellington said in an e-mail. “It seemed to me part of the Yale spirit to have people just slipping and sliding along in order to learn or teach.”
And while the secretary has the power to shut down Yale, the University’s official weather policy explains that it is “impossible” for Yale to ever close entirely, simply because of the around-the-clock needs of a research university and residential environment. But three decades ago, Mother Nature proved “impossible” is nothing.
The last day off
The University’s last closure, by all accounts, was in February 1978 during the three-day “Blizzard of ’78” that dumped over two feet of snow on New Haven and brought hurricane-force winds to New England.
As the snow fell, Gov. Ella T. Grasso ordered the state’s roads closed and all residents to stay home for the duration of the storm. But even with faculty stranded and legally required to stay off the roads, the University never technically cancelled classes. The University would never cancels classes, the University Secretary told the News at the time.
Despite the administration’s determination to stay open, classes were cancelled by default, and the University rode out the storm with only a skeleton staff of emergency workers. Meanwhile, Elis enjoyed the mid-semester interlude and made the most of the blustery weather. The Divinity School’s hill was jammed with sledders, while Old Campus played host to day-long games of tackle football, and Berkeley College students skated on their college’s makeshift rink.
As high winds filled colleges’ moats with snow, students took to jumping out of dorm room windows into the snowdrifts. That newfound tradition quickly ended when — as would be expected with a 30-foot nosedive — a Trumbull College sophomore made a hard landing, injured his back, and spent the rest of the snowstorm hospitalized.
Even for a University intent on holding class regardless of the weather, the blizzard left the school — and everyone else in the northeast — no choice but to stir up some hot chocolate and wait for the slow-moving storm to pass, said Dr. Mel Goldstein, chief meteorologist at WTNH-TV and a four-decade-long observer of Connecticut weather.
“People pretty much knew to close the schools, shut the doors, sit tight,” Goldstein said. “There was never really anything quite like that since. When people look at storms, they say, ‘Is this going to be February ’78 again?’”
After the University had dug out from the storm, students voiced concern that Yale officials were too stubborn in their hesitation to shut down school once the extent of the blizzard became clear.
“The greatest of Dante’s sins was pride, and the University has carried it to a foolish extreme,” one sophomore wrote in a News editorial after the storm.
Fifteen years later, the University got lucky and dodged perhaps the fiercest storm since the 1978 blizzard, as 1993’s “Storm of the Century” hit during spring break. As for previous closures, officials at Manuscripts and Archives, the Office of Public Affairs and the Provost’s Office knew of no University records on the subject.
Schools press on
Yale was hardly the only university to hesitate before pulling the plug on classes because of the 1978 storm. At Harvard — where The Crimson reported snow drifts six feet deep and wind gusts topping 90 m.p.h. — then-President Derek C. Bok allowed classes to continue as the storm battered Cambridge and cancelled them only after the Massachusetts governor ordered the state closed
Asked why he took so long to shut down the school, Bok is said to have replied, “I tried to, but I didn’t know how.” And it is no surprise why — asked a year earlier about the prospects of snow days, the Cantab Dean of Students said Harvard “will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world.”
And while Harvard’s 1978 closure was also the college’s most recent, other schools — including some others in the Ivy League — are more lenient in clearing the way for snowstorms.
Princeton University has been more willing to declare snow days. The university fully shut down for two days in 2003 and has had delays or early closings at least seven times, including last Wednesday, over the past five years. Last week’s storm also shuttered Dartmouth College and Cornell University, which have closed twice and four times over the last decade, respectively.
Local universities, especially those with many commuters, have also leaned toward shutting down in the case of snow. This year’s Valentine’s Day storm closed most local universities, including the University of Connecticut and the University of New Haven.
In all, students tend to make the best of snowy days, even if they aren’t actually snow days, said Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle.
“I’ve been at Yale for more than 40 years,” Suttle said, “and I can assure you that a snowstorm brings a lot more students out into their courtyards than keeps them inside.”