Students have complained about moldy residence halls for years. The University pretty much ignored them – until students started going to the hospital.
In the last few weeks, nearly 75 students have reported finding mold in their residence halls. Townhouse Row, home to many of GW’s fraternities and sororities, has been evacuated, with the University temporarily re-housing students in local hotels. It is a full-blown crisis at this point – instead of settling into their first in-person semester in a year and a half, students are crashing in hotel rooms or seeking medical attention for respiratory problems.
GW didn’t take student complaints about mold seriously until it went from a medium-sized inconvenience to a dire health emergency. It should serve as a teachable moment for the University to not brush aside students’ concerns or wait to address them until it’s too late – when it comes to mold or anything else.
A deep dive into The Hatchet’s archives shows students raising concerns about mold in residence halls as far back as 2009 and about buildings falling into disrepair as far back as 2005. But the problem seemed to have escalated in recent years. In 2013, students were so fed up with officials ignoring their pleas to address the mold situation that they turned to a local news station to tell their story. The negative media attention helped spur administrators to action, and the University promised it would review maintenance policies.
This review, in turn, led to the University making a commitment to renovating residence halls every seven years. That was in 2014. In the seven years between then and now, mold-related maladies have still befallen more than a few students, with the University taking very little broad action to stop the issue. When summer residents in Mitchell Hall started experiencing congestion and migraines in 2017, maintenance crews found mold, and the University relocated those students to other buildings for the rest of the semester. Later that same year, the University hired maintenance crews to regularly wipe down the bathrooms in Thurston Hall amid widespread reports of recurring mold and mildew.
Thurston has historically been the worst fungal offender among mold-infested residence halls. As any GW student who has either lived there or attended a freshman-year party there can attest to, it is a generally unsanitary place. Administrators made the right call in massively renovating the building. But until then, officials failed to proactively address maintenance issues that arose in buildings.
GW is bringing in mold experts to inspect every single residential building. These deep, across-the-board steps are being taken now – but were not taken during the decade and a half when students consistently complained about mold in the places where they eat, sleep and bathe.
There’s the practical side of the mold issue, which may be related to how Facilities, Planning, Construction and Management handled the shutdown of HVAC systems during the pandemic. But the symbolism of GW quite literally covering over a problem until it caused chaos is quite on-the-nose. When students raise concerns, the University should not just brush problems with a fresh coat of paint until the point of disaster.
Student concerns going unaddressed, or students feeling like their concerns are not being listened to, is not restricted to just the mold issue. Students have often felt like they have been shouting into the void. But the University has shown signs of genuine good faith and effort in changing this dynamic. From acceding to student demands on divestment to removing segregationist Cloyd Heck Marvin’s name from the University Student Center, administrators are clearly listening to the most prominent voices on the biggest issues facing students.
It is great to see administrators paying more attention to some of the larger issues students raise. But seemingly small issues – like the way student concerns about mold may have seemed a decade ago – should get addressed once students start bringing them up. It should not take two decades and a narrative-completing crisis to spur action. When students say hey, this bad thing is happening, their University should listen and not paint over the problem.
In 2019, The Hatchet’s then-contributing opinions editor wrote about moldy buildings, saying, “The University needs to prioritize stopping problems before they become costly for both the University and for students.” This is a rule for GW to live by going forward.
Andrew Sugrue, a senior majoring in political communication and political science, is the opinions editor.
This article appeared in the September 20, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.