Friday, June 13, 2008
Fridays and Footprints
With gas around four dollars a gallon, the seventies-era idea of colleges closing on Fridays to reduce travel is making a comeback. The idea, which I've already heard from several people on my campus and read about in a few places, is that switching to a four-day workweek will reduce commuting by twenty percent, thereby reducing the college's carbon footprint and the cost to employees of gasoline and/or mass transit fare.
It would also (theoretically) allow colleges to save on HVAC, lighting, and other utilities on Fridays.
Color me skeptical, and not because I don't get the appeal of a four-day week. On sunny summer Fridays, I get it viscerally. But that doesn't make it a good idea.
At a basic level, the college would be sacrificing enrollments, and therefore money, to save gas for other people. That may be ethically admirable, but it's a cost. The classrooms are already full during 'prime time' – roughly ten to two, Monday through Thursday – and students leave for part-time jobs after that. (The classes fill up again in the evening.) Moving the half-full Friday classes might seem efficient, but there's no room for them during the week. Those enrollments would have to be foregone, which is tough to do when tuition pays half your budget and the other half is based on formulae largely driven by enrollment numbers.
It would also force the full-time staff to work ten-hour days to remain full-time. For those of us with kids, or other commitments, or just lives, that's nothing to sneeze at. Some faculty would experience the change as liberatory, but for administration and staff, it would mean being chained to the offices even longer than we already are. (The alternative – make four eight-hour days the definition of full-time – would occasion a taxpayer revolt.) This is where the “just move it online and stop whining” approach falls down.
We'd also lose all that studio time, lab time, performance time, practice time, and all those other time-intensive non-classroom instructional uses that colleges support. We'd either have to cut the programs that need those things, or stuff them into the already overcrowded Monday-to-Thursday bloc.
Worse, we'd have to sacrifice the Friday-Saturday class blocs we run for working adults. Those aren't huge sellers, but they're incredibly important to some hardworking people.
And then, of course, there's parking. If you think it's hard to find a space during prime time now, just try adding all those displaced Friday folk! Irony of ironies if we wind up adding parking spaces to accommodate our anti-driving agenda.
It's true that our facility use is lighter on Fridays than during the rest of the week, but another way of reading that is “we can actually grow on Fridays.” We don't have the room to grow during the week. Since there seems to have been a de facto political decision made that we have to be much more tuition-driven than ever before, the only way for us to continue to meet our growing costs is to continue to grow. Take Fridays off the table, and any energy savings for the college will be more-than-swamped by the lost revenue.
It's a shame, since there's an obvious intuitive appeal to the idea. Painfully obvious. Really, crushingly, painfully obvious. Sigh.
As for keeping full-time staff at a 40-hour week, why couldn't Fridays be done electronically from home - just as Friday class meetings would be? That would actually give people *more* time at home, and more *flexible* time on a weekday. I'd think you'd be into the possibility of such a thing. Sure, the logistics of it would have to be worked out, to ensure that all of that Friday work gets done, but it's not *impossible* for this to be something that could work.
Now, as for your criticism about moving everything online taking away from time-intensive non-classroom instructional uses. Well, one option would be that those spaces could remain open, and that the space at the college could be rented out on Fridays, providing a source of revenue that currently doesn't exist with the 5-day-a-week schedule. (You wouldn't lose revenue by losing Friday classes, as they're not really lost - just Fridays meet electronically - and even lab classes could manage if that were the situation.)
I'm not saying any or all of this would work for certain. That said, your reaction against it seems a bit knee-jerk and I'm not quite sure why. It seems to me that there are creative possibilities that come to the fore when we consider something like this that "can't be done." I don't in any way think that this could be implemented quickly - or even that if there were a move toward it that it could happen in one fell swoop (which is where I think that the conversations I've heard about this are stupid - no, we're not just going to cancel Friday for the fall) - but to do some pilot things that could gradually test the waters... Well, who exactly would that hurt?
As a non-faculty parent of a young child, I certainly don't want to be asked to work four 10-hour days, but a lot of my colleagues who either aren't parents or who have different childcare setups than mine might jump at the chance. Sure, you don't get the energy savings of closing down the whole campus for a day, but you do get a (small? large? who knows?) number of people reducing their driving by 20%.
That said, I disagree with Dr. Crazy that telling staff to work from home one day a week is a viable option. What about the staff member who doesn't have high-speed internet at home? (I know, it's shocking.) Or who (gasp!) doesn't have a computer? How exactly does the building maintenance staff work from home? Again, give them the option, sure. But don't require it.
Similar to the stupid idea to "Boycott Exxon in order to drive down gas prices." [If you don't understand why that idea will have the exact opposite effect, chat with a free market economist]
O.K., so now I have Fridays off (in order to save gas).
Let's all drive to the beach! Let's go visit Grandma! Let's take that 3-day weekend trip to the B&B we've always wanted to visit!
[OBTW, how's that 3-4 day workweek working out for the French?]
It doesn't do a whole lot for the driving issue, since most staff and many faculty will still be driving on Fridays.
But apparently even a half-day without lights, HVAC, etc saved a reasonable chunk of cash.
There were never any Friday afternoon classes in the summer anyway; it was like a ghost town. Quite a few staff went to a 4-10s schedule as the same time, which actually does save some gas. :)
It was HUGELY popular, at least among us staff. (As far as I know, they're still doing it.) I don't think it would've worked the rest of the year, but in summer it was fantastic.
In the department where I worked, we also had quite a bit of telecommuting. It worked very well with my job, and with others in our department, but outside of our group I think there was some resentment. It really highlighted the difference between jobs that can be done remotely, and those that can't.
(The idea of Mondays-off is pretty clever, BTW, given all the Monday holidays!)
1) The experiment has been done for several years at a large (9000 student) CC in Alabama. (See IHE story from Oct 2005.) It is going to be tried at a smallish (4000 bodies) CC in Mississippi this fall. (See IHE back in May.) Their Dean-level people ought to be able to tell you how space utilization and student demand works out for those two different situations. It could be they have plenty of classroom space to meet the demand, or it could be that students will gladly take a sup-prime section to save on travel.
2) Our math faculty generally seem to think that Tu-Th classes have a lower success rate than M-W-F classes because of the 4-day forgetting gap. I'd recommend looking at what your IR people can tell you about the ABC rate for math classes that meet in the prime slot from 10 to 2. Might want to look at comp as well.
3) The business side ought to know, to within a few percent, how much money will be saved by closing the college for a day. After all, they have data for 3-day holiday weekends during every season of the year. I think you underestimate how much money the college will save. But beware of mold and book damage if you just shut down the HVAC systems.
4) I second the suggestion about a Monday closing. I wonder how your non-traditional population would look at a Sat-Mon schedule, since Monday is often a slack day for lots of businesses.
5) If you plan to stay open with a special Friday and Saturday schedule, you can make up for your space limitations and perhaps grow enrollment, but the college and its faculty may not benefit as much as in the 4-day case unless the rest of campus can be shut down.
A lived history Mighty Favog
I anticipate going home dead tired, bored as hell, frustrated, and annoyed...especially because my husband, who works at the same university, is a faculty member and has the flexibility to come in whenever he wants. So, we will be driving TWO cars to campus all summer because he is a night owl who cannot get to work at 7 am. So much for our personal gas savings, although I think it's great that the U will cut its energy and costs. Super fantastic.
Oh, and loss of tuition is not a problem for us since we're a highly subsidized state school, and we've drastically slashed our summer classes to save on instructional costs.
So...communally...great idea. Personally...sucks.
Maybe physics faculty aren't the best to talk to about such an idea...
Buses, jitneys, bikes? Set up carpool programs?
At least on my campus, they've tried to reduce car use in various ways (ride-sharing, monetary incentives for not driving, planning on a shuttle from train to campus), but I'm in a part of the country where cars are worshiped and the entire infrastructure of the place is built to accommodate them.
Also it's not just cars, it really is building energy and water use and so forth. God knows we flush enough toilets every day on campus that cutting that back by 20% will help the campus finances! Now if only we could find a way to turn off half the lights in the parking structure, which can probably be seen from space...
I can't see this one. Moving people from Friday to some other time might cut back on things like corridor lighting, but there's a lot of expenses that go along with people. Like toilet flushes: having the Friday students taking a dump on Monday instead isn't going to lower the water bill, only change the time of the flush…
A lot of students at community colleges don't have much money. They're working at low-wage jobs, and $90 for a tank of gas is a significant expense. Everywhere in the US bike sales are up. Train ridership and bus ridership are up. Gas prices are not going to go down, so we need to adapt.
Demand curves really do slope down: when gas costs a lot more, people buy less.
The problem is that students need a reliable way to get from their class to their job. They also need to have the bus run for evening classes.
To Anonymous 6:09 PM -
My physics class already crosses boundaries, but we could do it in 4 days instead of 5. (I'd really like it if it was M-Tu-Th-F to keep the forgetting breaks shorter, but I can see several ways to do it.) Our evening algebra-based class only meets two nights a week, plus a lab, so it would work in a system like has been described.
This year, with high gas prices, a lot more people took advantage of the 4/10 than in the recent past. Several more closed departments than usual.
What the practice does to measurement of "capacity utilization" is up to the reader as an exercise (see also the expanded parking lots at commuter train stations once female labor force participation increased, but I digress).
As far as getting the teaching done, it's hard to tell, because the summer session, unless the college is on quarters, is different anyway. (At Wayne, one could throw away all that work on digestible chunks or shorter intellectual decay during the regular semester as well. Jam it into one meeting, or two meetings at most a week, because that's all the time the non-trads could spare.) Perhaps it's different at the community colleges, but I doubt it.
So what about the 36 or 32 hour work week? Perhaps a tax-supported institution where casual observers suspect there is a lot of goofing off anyway isn't the best place to start. But listen to those traffic reports around the big cities where the Friday rush hour starts around lunchtime, and consider the implications of casual Fridays. The two-day weekend is a manifestation of greater prosperity; as we get richer, we'll see three-day weekends as the norm, never mind how much idle time the cubicles at the office park or the science lab at the community college accumulates.