As snow blanketed the ground last Tuesday, many believed class cancellation on Wed. Jan. 29, was inevitable.
But, on Wednesday morning, the university granted only a delayed opening until 10 a.m. via an email from Chris Cimino, vice chancellor of finance and administration.
Following the announcement, #CancelUTK appeared on Twitter, with a Cancel Classes UTK account (@CancelUTK) garnering almost 2,000 followers. Independently, many professors cancelled their classes or did not count Wednesday absences.
Cimino said he believes the university acted in accordance with the accessibility of major roads surrounding UT, like Neyland Drive, Kingston Pike, Interstate-40 and I-74.
"Because we cannot ensure all secondary roads and those in residential areas are clear, everyone has to make a decision as to their own ability to make it to campus safely," Cimino said through public relations representative Amy Blakely. "Our decision to remain open or delay is based on what we believe road conditions are for the majority of travelers."
Blaire Hamilton, senior in American studies and religious studies, left for class Tuesday not long after the snow began to fall. On the way, her car slid and hit a tree. Although a friend arrived and took her to class, the professor soon cancelled anyway.
"I understand the desire to not upset the academic schedule by canceling class, but I feel that the university put many commuter students in a dangerous situation," Hamilton said. "Although the main roads are quickly cleared after snow, the side streets that many students have to drive are not.
"Tuesday put me in the unnecessarily difficult situation of having to choose between risking my safety and getting to class."
The decision to cancel class is ultimately the Chancellor's, but he receives feedback from various sources. Cimino collects input from UTPD, the Emergency Management Office, Facilities Services and other Cabinet members including the Provost, who solicits input from deans and faculty.
Cimino also looks at local and regional reports, TDOT warnings and live cameras on campus. The vice chancellor is usually on campus before 5 a.m. to assess conditions. After Cimino's recommendation, Chancellor Cheek makes the final decision.
"Our policy is to remain open except for the most severe weather conditions," Cimino said. "For the campus to be completely closed, roadways into and out of campus would have to be impassable and campus operations impacted to the point we could not serve students."
As a public research institute, UT believes halting operations for a day could negatively impact a plethora of activities. To prepare for events like the #utksnowpocalypse, a name bestowed upon the weather through Twitter, road surfaces and sidewalks are treated anywhere from 24 to 48 hours prior to the anticipated weather, with crews working overnight to prepare campus.
"Public safety is always a top priority," Cimino said, "and while the campus may be prepared to accept faculty, staff, and students, everyone must ultimately make a personal decision as to their own safety in traveling to and from campus."
In July 2012, the Knoxville News Sentinel recounted the story of a blizzard in 1965 during which, despite the university remaining in session, many students skipped class to throw snowballs at passing cars along Cumberland Avenue.
After a snowball hit one trucker's window, the driver shot and killed an 18-year-old student.
The article, tweeted last week in honor of the weather, suggests an underlying connection to the strict weather policy. The university denies the impact of previous events in determining cases of inclement weather.
"The university feels it made the correct decision based on campus conditions, major arteries being open and passable, and the majority of employees and students being able to travel safely to the campus," Cimino said.
Following his shift at a nearby Target location, one UT student — who wanted to remain anonymous — was offered the option to spend the night at the store last Tuesday evening for safety reasons. Due to his fear of missing class the next day, the student made his way home.
In retrospect, the student agreed that most roads were manageable by 10 a.m. However, he said he was frustrated by what he perceived to be the prioritization of reputation over safety.
"UT believes that all of its students are on campus or within walking distance of it," the student said, "but the fact of the matter is that many of us are not, and the university's choice to risk the minority's lives for some facade of 'we care so much about education that weather doesn't scare us' is ill-advised and, in this case, slightly reckless."
Predicting continued tuition spikes and recalling instances of "sub-par instructors," the student questioned the motives that potentially informed the administration's choice.
"I can't help but think that worrying about what others think of UT's canceling of classes due to inclement weather," the student said, "is the least of the concerns UT should be worrying about."