To avoid campus gridlock, University of Utah administrators have canceled classes on the afternoon and evening of Sept. 1, when the Utes make their debut as a Pac-12 football program.
"It's a recognition of the reality that the stadium is now filling for every game," said David Pershing, the U.'s senior vice president for academic affairs. "Any game that occurs on weeknights gives us huge parking and transportation issues. Last year [for the Sept. 2 game against Pittsburgh], we did not cancel classes and it proved to be a nightmare."
Pershing, who announced the cancellation on Wednesday, stressed that academics remain more important than athletics at the U., but some faculty were not pleased with the precedent it sets.
"I don't like the message it sends," said Jay Jordan, an assistant professor of English. "We are going to use the academic schedule to accommodate football."
But student president Neela Pack noted a precedent was set for accommodating rock 'n' roll when classes were canceled for the U2 concert last summer.
"It would be counterproductive [to hold classes] when there's so much noise, traffic and people missing," she said. "It's an understandable thing. A majority of students will be at the game."
Because of broadcast contracts, Thursday night games have become common in NCAA football and the U. has one such home game most seasons, often the season opener.
After those games, Pershing fielded numerous complaints from students and faculty that they could not get to campus on public transportation or find parking because of throngs of football fans who begin converging on campus hours before the 6 p.m. kickoff.
"I got complaints from faculty who had significant portions of students who couldn't make it to class," Pershing said.
The cancellation affects only classes that start after 3 p.m. on the lower campus. Thursday's game is against Montana State University, which isn't a Pac-12 rival. Even without a marquee opponent, the game is expected to pack Rice-Eccles Stadium and administrators are bent on avoiding the problems of past weeknight games even at the expense of class time.
"It is an attempt to be fair to our students and not put them at a disadvantage. Some [faculty] are clearly not happy. This is a situation where it's impossible to make everyone happy," Pershing said. "We'll try it this year and see how it goes. The fact that we're an urban university make this more complicated."
The U. has plenty of Thursday night classes, particularly in required courses.
Almost all U. students pass through Writing 2010, which offers about 90 sections.
This semester, 24 first-time instructors are teaching this freshman writing course using a standard syllabus, said Jordan, who runs the 2010 program.
Canceling classes will put the instructors and students who meet for Thursday sections out of sync with the others and disrupt carefully crafted course outlines, according to Jordan.
"I was really frustrated that they would do it and do it with such short notice," he said.
Game-day class cancellations, meanwhile, are not typical at other Pac-12 schools.
University of Arizona, which hosts the non-Pac 12 University of California, Davis on Thursday, has no plans to cancel classes at its Tucson campus. Arizona State University is staging a Thursday conference game on Oct. 20 without disrupting class schedules, while University of Colorado is bracing for major crowds for the Nov. 4 game with University of Southern California.
"We've worked with the NCAA and our broadcast partners to avoid [problems], so we are having the game on a Friday and we asked for a 7 p.m. start time," said University of Colorado spokeswoman Malinda Miller-Huey. Two years ago when the Buffaloes hosted West Virginia on a Thursday, the university released staff early to clear out campus parking lots ahead of the game.
"We did a lot of communication to let people know about alternative transportation," she said. "It's definitely a tricky issue when you have that many people leaving and coming at the same time."
Stanford and Berkeley, both metro-area Pac-12 schools with large on-campus stadiums, have hosted very few Thursday games and have none scheduled.
Weeknight ball is expected to become a regular part of Utah's schedule, with opening day slotted on Thursdays for the next few seasons. Next year, the Utes host Washington State, then Utah State in subsequent seasons.