Photos by Karl Winter
The possibility of rock and mudslides during winter rainstorms, escalated by the Woolsey Fire, has made safety around the Malibu campus more concerning and increased speculation about Pepperdine’s decision-making process during severe weather.
Pepperdine Provost Rick Marrs said on days in which Malibu is threatened by rain, mudslides or other natural hazards, three senior administrators decide whether or not the campus will be closed: President Andrew K. Benton, Executive Vice President Gary A. Hanson and Marrs. Their decision is then delivered to the student body via email and text by the Public Relations department.
The decision lies between erring on the side of safety and making certain that the university meets accreditation requirements, which ensure that students are able to receive federal financial aid, Dean of Seaver College Michael Feltner said.
“We make a decision around 5:30 [a.m.] specifically about whether the campus will be open or closed, and that decision is disseminated pretty quickly so people can adjust accordingly,” Marrs said.
Marrs said the three leaders gather information regarding road conditions in the early hours of the morning from the National Weather Service, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other local Malibu and Los Angeles authorities. Marrs said “how accessible campus is” is the primary factor in the decision.
“The practice has been, if there are are road closures so that we are down to only one way to get to the campus, we typically would close,” Marrs said. “If you have two or more ways to get to the campus, we’re open.”
This map shows the five main routes to reach Pepperdine’s Malibu campus. Provost Marrs suggested that two of these routes must be open for campus to remain open.
Once the decision regarding the physical accessibility of campus is made, academic administration, like Dean Feltner, decide whether campus will be “fully closed”or utilize “remote administration tools,” Feltner said.
“In all cases, we want people to prioritize their personal safety,” Feltner said.
Although Marrs said the final judgment regarding campus closure is made around 5:30 a.m., commuting students like junior Jalen Frantal have had a different experience.
“In the past … they don’t let us know until 7 [a.m.], and a lot of people are already getting ready or on their way to school,” Frantal said.
Frantal travels south on Kanan Dume Road, the largest of the canyon roads, from his off-campus apartment to Pepperdine. Despite the four-day storm Jan. 14 to 17, Kanan Dume remained open as a route to campus.
“Sometimes they’ll close two of the four lanes because there’s rocks or some mud residue,” Frantal said.
The road did close all four lanes Saturday, Feb. 2, for approximately 20 hours due to debris and flooding. Topanga Canyon Road, Malibu Canyon Road and parts of Pacific Coast Highway (between Broad Beach Road and Las Posas Road) have all been closed due to inclement weather at some point in 2019 already.
Professor Gerard Fasel travels east on Pacific Coast Highway from his Ventura home to campus and he said his travel has been “a little hectic” with the recent rainstorms.
“I don’t feel threatened,” Fasel said. “I have blown out a couple tires in the past . . . driving down right there by Point Mugu, with the rocks falling.”
Fasel said he does “use something remotely to get information to the students” if necessary. Frantal said remote administration of classes is “a pretty good alternative” to keeping the campus open for class.
Feltner and Marrs said the capability to remotely deliver classes is a reliable way to provide flexibility for professors and students. This “remote administration” includes professors being able to hold a digital class meeting via web conference platform Zoom, deliver an assignment or materials via Courses (or similar technology) or even hold class if they and their students live on campus.
“We are going to try to use remote administration if at all possible, but just as we did during the Woolsey Fire, we are going to make sure that we give great latitude to our faculty in terms of how they will choose to use that directive to engage their classes,” Feltner said.
The situation of campus inaccessibility during the Woolsey Fire helped the University to revolutionize the system of remote administration of classes. Feltner said the system was “wildly successful” because the school was able to carry out a week’s worth of instruction without losing class days.
“With the fire, we found out pretty quickly that, especially Seaver [College], developed a protocol where they could deliver [classes] remotely,” Marrs said. “That came out of the fire because I don’t think we’d ever had the campus closed quite that long.”
Marrs and Feltner agreed the remote delivery of classes during the Woolsey Fire was a great success and a necessary arrangement. The WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), the accreditation organization that accredits Pepperdine, would not have allowed the eight class days in which the Malibu campus was closed to simply be lost.
“[The accreditors] were very supportive, but they also let us know that they watch closely class dates, delivery and all that sort of thing,” Marrs said.
The WSCUC requires each credit-hour of a class in a semester to have have 15 hours of in-class engagement and 30 hours of outside-class engagement with the material, Feltner said.
“The accreditors generally have shown a willingness to exert some leeway if it’s a one-day closure,” Feltner said.
While Seaver College opted to attempt remote delivery of classes during the fire, the Pepperdine School of Law, which is accredited by the American Bar Association, added days to its semester to make up classes, Marrs said.
Feltner said the risk of the school losing its accreditation, and some students therefore losing their federal aid, was “not a position that [he] or anyone at Pepperdine was going to allow to occur.”
Accreditors aside, Feltner and Marrs agreed that Pepperdine professors are now fully prepared for inclement weather situations.
“They went through an orientation about what [remote delivery of classes] looks like, and I think they all have the capability,” Marrs said.
Despite this capability, Feltner said Pepperdine is committed to providing a face-to-face learning experience whenever possible.
“That we can use tools to engage on a short-term basis probably gives us some flexibility, but it doesn’t change our imperative to try to provide what we view to be the Pepperdine experience and the Seaver College experience to students,” Feltner said.
Follow Karl Winter on Twitter @karlwinter23