Dick Cannon: The man behind the snow day

By Patrick McGoldrick
On March 4, 2014

For most, he exists only in the signature of his emails and the late-night whispers that fill dorms across the University of New Hampshire campus. The guy's become a household name without anyone even having seen his face, a remarkable achievement once exclusive to celebrity babies. Just who is this mythical man behind our snow days, and how does the university decide when to curtail operations?

To find the answer to these questions, The New Hampshire met with Vice President for Finance and Administration Dick Cannon to get to the bottom of this. Don't worry; there is a method to the madness.  

Before coming to UNH in 2006, Cannon worked in health care for 20 years and, most recently, in a consulting firm that specialized in organizational development for colleges, universities and academic medical centers. His background in organizational management helped influence a new snow day information policy, one Cannon described as "communicating what we know, and the way we are thinking." The administration knows that people start wondering about curtailed operations when a storm is imminent; Cannon explained that when this is the case he informs his cabinet and, depending on the storm, calls a meeting. 

The new texting/emailing snow day policy regarding curtailed operations was established for the sake of transparency. The rumors that circulate suggesting the administration knows they are going to call a snow day hours before an announcement, but withheld the information, is false.

"Our philosophy," Cannon said of the rumors, "is we're going to tell students what we know when we know it ... so people can plan." 

In Cannon's emails to the UNH community, some see the times given for an expected decision by the university - such as 4 a.m. - as somewhat arbitrary. Some students believe these times are to curtail student drinking before a snow day.

"I have heard that from some people," Cannon said, "but that's not why we're doing it."

Cannon reiterated that the students are being informed exactly when and what he knows for the sake of planning and safety. 

And what of this decision-making process? Cannon is not acting alone.

"There are four major players" Cannon said. Those players, the key decision makers who decide whether UNH will curtail operations, are Associate Vice President of Facilities Paul Chamberlin, Director of Public Safety Paul Dean, a volunteer meteorologist they keep on retainer for big storms and, of course, Dick Cannon himself.

Despite all this bureaucracy, Cannon assured that "the buck stops with me." Cannon discusses the matter with UNH President Mark Huddleston, but when the president's away, the final decision has largely been at Cannon's jurisdiction.  

In the past, depending on the gravity of the storm, Cannon sends an email to his cabinet and they gather around the round table to weigh their options. Each member has their own priorities: the police are focused on public safety and facilities cares about the cleanup. 

The meteorologist allows for a more "granular" look at the forecast, specifically for the town of Durham, explained Cannon, so there's "a great deal of added value there. ... [the meteorologist] has access to all the models."

With such meticulous care it's no mystery that decisions are not finalized until 4:30 a.m. 

Chamberlin, according to Cannon, wakes up around 3:30 a.m. and "checks the forces on the ground," - the workers, snow-plowing, et cetera - and assesses the situation. Then he calls Cannon around 4 a.m., they compare notes, ultimately arriving at a decision by 4:30 a.m. The rest you're familiar with.

"We want to give students at least two hours' notice before any classes," Cannon said of the time choice. 

Like any highly-politicized decision, both the making and execution are subject to public critique, and anyone who's been on top of social media has seen #DICKCANNON and #CURTOPS occupying their newsfeed the day before a storm. 

Cannon said he was only recently made aware of his social media celebrity after a colleague mentioned in passing that he'd become a trending hashtag. "I don't do Twitter," Cannon said.

Dick Cannon doesn't revel in his power, or hate winter. He's just looking out for the students and faculty, which is his job.

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