On Monday, March 4, Orono was hit with the remnants of a northeast storm, often referred to as a “nor’easter.” The University of Maine received 7 inches of snow, by no means an inordinate amount for a March storm, and has been criticized by students and faculty for the decision to hold classes as usual.
“There are safety considerations that need to be taken more seriously, as we’ve seen bad accidents by those on the way to campus in recent years, some even resulting in fatalities,” Robert Glover, a professor of political science at UMaine, said.
In December of 2010, a student was killed after he slid off the road on his way to an exam at University of Maine during a snowstorm. In March of 2015, over 100 cars were involved in a snow-triggered pileup on Interstate 95 in Carmel. Classes were not canceled, and several UMaine students were stuck and missed class as a result of the incident.
David Townsend, professor of oceanography and president of the Faculty Senate, addressed what went wrong on March 4 with a simple statement: “they should have closed the University.”
As Townsend explained, a nor’easter develops on a polar front. The system comes down from Canada and, under the right conditions, destabilizes into a cyclonic low-pressure system. As the cold, dry air moves over the warm Gulf Stream ocean current, it gains energy from humid air. The circulation around the low-pressure center is counter-clockwise, meaning that winds from an offshore storm rush over Maine from the northeast. The storm brings moisture into the cold air over Maine and forms heavy snow.
For the week leading up to the March 4 storm, forecasters were calling it a nor’easter. On Friday, however, the storm’s path moved farther offshore and lessened in severity. By Sunday night, the forecast had been reduced from 8-12 inches of snow to 4-8, ending at noon.
“It didn’t sound bad at all, but they didn’t factor in the air temperature,” Townsend said. “When you get wet, heavy snow, if you’re the first person to drive through virgin snow, with four-wheel drive, it’s no problem. But behind you, in your tracks, is compressed snow. Anyone who’s ever made a snowball knows that you can compress it into ice.”
Snow is more easily compressed into ice when it’s close to 32 degrees. During the recent storm, the air was the perfect temperature for hydrogen bonds to form in the compressing snow, turning unplowed roads into sheets of ice.
The conditions following the snowfall on March 4 were worsened by the lack of cleanup.
The Collins Center for the Arts, Belgrade and Steam Plant parking lots were uncleared until after classes were over for the day.
The Orono Police Department reported three traffic incidents, one crash and two instances of cars sliding off the roads into ditches. Several professors reported that their students had to miss class because they got into accidents.
UMaine’s Senior Director for Public Relations, Margaret Nagle, speaking for Provost Jeffrey Hecker, stated that at 5 a.m., when the snow day committee caucused to make a decision, there was less than an inch of snow on the ground. There were four inches by 6 a.m., conditions that prompted the United States Postal Service to not deliver mail during the storm.
The University of Maine at Augusta and Husson University in Bangor were closed, with UMaine explaining that both of those schools are commuter campuses. Enrollment at Husson is 2,763 and at UMaine Augusta it is 6,200. In Orono, there are more than 6,800 students who commute to the campus.
In the days when UMaine was primarily residential, there was no policy in place to cancel classes, according to Townsend. He said that in the four years he was an undergraduate student in Orono, from 1970 to 1974, classes weren’t canceled once. In 1970, enrollment at UMaine was just over 8,000 students and the overwhelming majority lived on campus. There were at least seven more residence halls, including what are now Dunn, Stodder, Chadbourne and Corbett Halls.
In the fall of 2018, enrollment was 11,404 students. The UMaine website states that over 60 percent of students live off campus.
Townsend said that there are arguments in regard to canceling classes from all sides: the students, faculty, staff and administration.
“There’s heavy pressure from faculty who don’t want to reschedule classes or labs. There’s pressure from students and staff who don’t want to drive on this,” Townsend said.
He and Andrew Thomas, a professor in the School of Marine Sciences and member of the Faculty Senate, agree that student safety should be more important than avoiding inconvenience.
“To have students and staff literally risking their lives is not acceptable,” Thomas said. “Many of us have the luxury of making the decision [to cancel classes], but so many others do not.”
Students have been frustrated by the apparent sense of pride that the University takes in its resistance to canceling classes. The University posted a picture of Fogler Library in the storm on its official Facebook page which received many comments expressing anger at the decision not to cancel classes.
Others felt confused by the ambiguity surrounding snow days.
“I think that a defined and accessible list of conditions that the school uses to determine whether there should be a snow day would help to ease sentiments,” Ian Scanlon, a second-year political science student, said.
The Faculty Senate will meet on Wednesday, March 13. Townsend is putting forth a motion to request that the snow day committee appear before the Senate to explain what happened on March 4 and their procedures for deciding when to call a snow day. The meeting will be held in the Wells Conference Center at 3 p.m. and is open to the public.