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.