Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Eve Day

This year, Christmas falls on a Tuesday, so Christmas Eve Day is on a Monday. The college closes for Christmas, in recognition of a larger cultural reality, but will be open on Christmas Eve Day. Exams will already have finished well before that, and grades will have been posted.

The faculty, I'm reasonably certain, will be long gone. Entire hallways will be deserted. But we'll heat the whole place anyway, and a few benighted souls will be on hand to field anybody who theoretically could show up.

You should hear the grumbling. Nearly everybody -- myself included -- is burning a vacation day on the 24th. We have real 'skeleton crew' representation, consisting of a few good sports.

The human side of me thinks this is kind of asinine, and wishes the college would just be closed on the 24th. But the administrator in me actually gets it. (That's not to deny that some of us administrators also happen to be human. It's just that we have to be able to turn it on and off.)

One reason is precedent. In a collective bargaining environment in which people are quick to assert 'past practice' status for anything ever done, this year's mercy closing becomes next year's entitlement. And when the 24th is a given, the 23rd starts to look kind of silly. The college could try to argue that the 24th was special for falling on a Monday, but being right is no guarantee of winning.

So to avoid a series of future arguments, the college is playing Scrooge and staying officially open -- if mostly dark -- on the 24th. There's a certain Dilbertish quality to it, and I'm sure the folks who actually show up will be bored out of their minds, and it's a criminal waste of natural resources to heat all those empty buildings, but it solves a real problem. If you don't hold to some lines in the sand, even when they seem a little silly, 'past practice' can become nearly unstoppable.

"Aha!," I hear my astute readers saying. "There you go again, blaming the unions. What about working out memoranda of understanding with the relevant unions in advance, stipulating that this isn't setting a precedent? That way, everybody wins!" Sadly, no.

The answer has to do with how it would play in the press. If the college grants an 'extra' day off in the name of saving heat and electricity, the local papers would play it as featherbedding. The usual suspects would start grumbling about public employees goofing off on your tax dime, and how we have to get tough on all those overpaid administrative assistants. ("Don't they get lots of paid vacation already?") If we were a private college, the 'memorandum of understanding' route would make sense, and might even come off as statesmanlike. But as a public institution, that move would look like a conspiracy to rip off the long-suffering taxpayers. Even if the 24th is demonstrably an utterly unproductive day. Even if the money saved in utilities alone more than made up for it.

The featherbedding angle would be especially damaging when our local public sector is facing some pretty nasty financial issues already. It's hard to plead poverty to the taxpayers, then turn around and grant 'extra' days off to unionized employees, many of whom get better benefits than do most taxpayers. (One of those benefits is a buyout of unused vacation days upon retirement. Requiring people to take a vacation day actually reduces the cost of future buyouts, so there really is a financial impact to this.) The folks who like to demagogue such things would beat this to death.

So even though exams will be long over, grades will have been posted, and there won't be a professor to be found, we'll be open. Your tax dollars at work!