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Pierce residents cry foul over plumbing fiascoes

Exploding toilets and fetid water are just a few of the problems that residents have faced.

Residents of Pierce Tower are organizing to demand immediate action from administrators on the persistent water outages, exploding toilets, and other inconveniences that have dogged the building since the start of the school year.

Most recently, around 2:30 a.m. Monday morning, a toilet in a tenth-floor restroom erupted with such force that splintered pieces of porcelain were left scattered about the seat, at about the same time that a water outage left residents coping with sinks spurting jets of yellow water; cold water was restored around 3:30 a.m., but hot water did not return reliably until around 1 p.m.

The explosion startled first-year David Goldfeld, whose room is across from the bathroom. Goldfeld, who said that the noise “sounded like a shotgun,” joined other residents and tried to notify the building’s front desk of the incident, but found that the building’s elevators were stuck in the basement. When the residents got in touch with the front desk, they were told that engineers were on their way.

The same eruption happened in a fourth-floor toilet Saturday around 5:30 p.m.

These problems are not isolated nuisances. Last October, water outages were so frequent that Shorey House Resident Head Evan Kuehn encouraged his residents to shower at Ratner Athletic Center when they occurred. Students and resident heads submitted work orders, but plumbing problems continued.

First-year Henderson House resident Michelle Rodriguez had an especially unfortunate experience earlier this year.

“The toilet literally turned into a geyser,” she said, recalling an incident during the start of fall quarter when she had happened upon a used toilet and decided to flush it. “I had pieces of someone else’s excrement on my hair, my face, my lips. Even the ceiling gets spotted with excrement when this happens.”

Since there was also a water outage when the toilet erupted that time, Rodriguez had to use Clorox wipes to clean herself.

Elevator outages, urinal leakages, broken ceramic tiling and linoleum, decaying furniture, broken drains, mid-winter heating outages, and ceiling mold have also been subjects of student complaints. Administrators sent students a list of improvements made over winter break, including thorough cleanings and increased communication mechanisms, in response to grievances aired prior to the break.

Students have been encouraged to go through official channels to address the problem by submitting work orders and bringing up complaints during house meetings. However, the continued inability to fix Pierce in the long term has provoked a number of students to seek assistance directly from University administrators.

After the explosion yesterday morning, Goldfeld stayed up and wrote several e-mails to University administrators, including Dean of the College John Boyer and Vice President for Campus Life Kimberly Goff-Crews. When he didn’t receive any responses yesterday morning, Goldfeld met with both administrators at their offices. Boyer and Goff-Crews were receptive to student concerns, Goldfeld said, and Goff-Crews pledged better communication between administrators and students.

One Pierce resident, who assumed the name “John Smith” posted on the Facebook group “Overheard at UChicago”: “If conditions do not improve and response time to these problems does not quicken, I can assure you the proper legal course of action will be taken.” “Smith” plans on meeting with Assistant Vice President for Student Life Eleanor Daugherty today.

First-year Rodriguez and others have also created and maintained a blog, savepierce.tumblr.com, with descriptions and pictures of neglected Pierce infrastructure and amenities.

Meanwhile, second-year Jane Bartman has started an online petition, now with over 100 signatures. Bartman is also a Maroon staffer.

“The maintenance problems that arose this weekend at Pierce Tower are unacceptable, and they require urgent attention. The University’s leadership is working at the highest levels to find both short-term and long-term solutions to this situation,” Goff-Crews said in an e-mail to the Maroon.

Goldfeld agreed with ideas expressed in a paper Boyer wrote in 2008 about the importance of housing in the academic experience, in which Boyer lamented the U of C’s relatively low participation in the residence system.

“Boyer supported infrastructural renovations as necessary, as UChicago isn’t offering what comparable schools, like the Ivies, offer,” he said.

In response to recent concerns, Luttig-Komrosky and other administrators have stationed a 24-hour facilities staff member to monitor water levels, engaged with plumbing consultants, and employed an on-call engineer. They also offered to host senior leadership from Campus and Student Life, Facilities Services and the College for a town hall–style meeting at 8:30 p.m. today in Pierce Dining Commons, and met with resident heads last night.

RH Kuehn said that, for all of the benefits of closeness in the housing system, inevitably, students get fed up.

“Although we take pride in a close Pierce culture and community, we’ve had students who have said that they just can’t deal with another year of living in Pierce if conditions don’t improve,” he said.

“What if we had prospective students here?”

—Additional reporting by Sam Levine and Rebecca Guterman

34 comments on “Pierce residents cry foul over plumbing fiascoes

  1. reply

    To add: around 3am that morning, I checked on the bathrooms of every floor in Pierce to see if they were experiencing similar problems.

    Every floor in Pierce had exploding toilet problems.

  2. reply

    they let me go last year i was the engineerthe water was good i knew what to do you have to stay on it they send engineers that do not know what to do all the big shots new about this for a long time sorry kids you need me back ray graham work for the u of c for 26 years

  3. reply

    “the continued inability to fix Pierce in the long term has provoked a number of students to seek assistance directly from University administrators.”

    as if university administrators will ever be of assistance…

    • reply

      Sounds like something the top-heavy, bureaucratically bulging, bumbling Facilities Services would do. They hire more directors who are smooth talkers and shed real workers who get things done……. yeah, smooth talkers. We need more of these to explain why service isn’t really being performed …yeah right.

  4. reply

    Who needs toilets or running water? Another example of elitist UChicago students complaining because the world doesn’t revolve around them. The Lake is nearby.

  5. reply

    Who are these administrators? Let’s get some names on the table. These incompetent bureaucrats hide behind generic names ……. is this the Facilities Services knuckleheads again? I’ll bet so …….

  6. reply

    Pierce residents deserve compensation for this horrendous lack of service.

    Legal action is the only thing that makes the administration notice problems.

  7. reply

    Long time reader, longer time mocker, first time commenter.

    This is by far the best piece of journalism I’ve read in the Maroon in my four years here. As a one-time prospie in Shorey House (which seems to be the epicenter of this conflagration), a former Shoreland resident (Pierce’s just as decrepit but so much cooler cousin), and a die-hard UChicago fanboy, I have to say that this situation is embarrassing and appalling. If it goes on much longer we may find out whether Pierce is as riot-proof as the tour guides say it is.

    P.S. How much water pressure does it take to break porcelain???

  8. reply

    Hopefully the Maroon finds its way to the General Counsel’s office. These longstanding, systemic problems constitute huge negligence liability exposure, as well as multiple serious building code violations which might warrant a complete shutdown.

  9. reply
    Marvin Pschigoda

    I am not a student but a frequent visitor to campus and a teacher who has recommended U of C to many of his students. The number of Nobels is often touted. Perhaps one of them can figure out this relatively minor problem compared to the many accomplishments in science and economics.

    Sincerely, I would have expected better of the University of Chicago. Students should get better service than this, especially in light of the relatively high tuition they pay.

    I hope the administration will provide more respectful responses and alternative lodging until these problems are solved. These are the basic human needs we are talking about.

    There are certainly enough construction projects going on, perhaps some of the effort should be put towards maintaining the current infrastructure.

  10. reply

    This is a good article on an unfortunate situation that I hope to never have to suffer through. I wonder how quickly this problem would be taken care of if it happened in the administration building?

  11. reply
    Disgusted Resident

    “I had pieces of someone else’s excrement on my hair, my face, my lips.”

    That is ABSOLUTELY disgusting and is in no way tolerable for facilities of the University of Chicago. I could spend $10, 000 in room and board elsewhere and not have to deal with shi** spilling on my face.

    I read this in the dining hall, and literally screamed out in horror and disgust.

    The administration should seriously look into rectifying the squalid living conditions of Pierce.

  12. reply

    The Maintenance Department has a long and storied record of negligence. They spend more effort eliminating jobs of the working class while bloating up their managers, directors, executive directors, associate & assistant managers, etc, etc, etc.
    I know because I have a few friends who are technicians who are trying to do the best they can. Facilities is noted for the hype (ribbon cuts & green (phony green) but not very good at the day-to-day service of its customers – not the media but the STUDENTS. Yes it’s the STUDENTS STUPID!

  13. reply

    This is an absolute travesty! I lived there in 1971 and 1972. Grim it was and sometimes smelly but never for this reason.

    Bruce Gluckman
    A.B. 1975

  14. reply

    My husband, an out of work licensed plumber has been trying to get hired there for months, being told they can’t post a job until labor disputes are settled. There are 100′s over over qualified plumbers out of work. If U of C would spend the money the problem would be fixed.

  15. reply

    As we have heard before – That Facilities Department is tremendously top-heavy. They hire 5 managers for every tradesman – Amy – you’re husband will have to wait a few months or until 5 new manager /director types have been hired.

    Real sweet, isn’t it?

  16. reply

    Agreed…Facilities is very top heavy with egos to match–the internal competition and backstabbing that goes on,the “I’m better than you attitudes”, clerical staff bullying, “don’t make me look bad attitudes” and blame game (finger always points outward)is sad and almost comical considering this is the U of C…these things can be overlooked if they put preventive measures in place to avoid situations such as the one at Pierce….but it seems they are used to performing in reactive mode (thinking this makes them shine)only because they are too focused on the aforementioned petty and unnecessary items…PLEASE focus on improving internal efficiencies of operations! Leave your egos at home! What plans are in place to handle the maintenance of new buildings and new construction? What preventive maintenance plans/measures are in place? If there are solid plans for exisiting buildings–this shouldn’t be to tough to answer.

  17. reply

    Thanks to WGN America this story has gone nationwide. I am sure it will assist many students in deciding which college should receive their applications. Wouldn’t it have been better to just have responded appropriately to the work orders last October?

    From the graffiti and condition of public restrooms, I realize that students do not always treat college property with respect either.

    In a somewhat analogous situation, I found that a call to the local health department brought an almost immediate response to an issue that had been in work-order limbo for months as well.

    To be fair, what is the other side of the story? How about an official response from a maintenance or administration source other than youtube?

  18. reply

    I applied for an administrative job in the housing department back in the fall…what an absolute mess. The interview, if you can call it that, was a clusterfuck of unprepared administrators who kept asking questions regarding personnel issues rather than discuss anything related to housing operations. I heard there have been a lot of changes in student affairs with incapable people in positions they have no business being in. That search committee was a clear reflection of that. When I asked how much money is spent annually on infrastructure repairs I was told “Recently not much.” When an institution doesn’t spend on renewal and replacement budget the end result, if you’re lucky, is an exploding toilet. If you’re not so lucky it’s a massive electrical failure that will fry anything that’s plugged into a socket in the building or something that might take out a student or two. Good luck gang….based on what I saw (or didn’t see) in that interview, you’re really going to need all the luck you can get.

  19. reply

    Ya know – Marvin 2 has the right idea. Start calling /contacting the media – they are an authority even above an EVP ….. wow – wasn’t it Upton Sinclair who helped improve conditions in the meat packing industry …. come to think of it isn’t UofC in that same industry?

    When publicity increases, the real action to correct this will happen – everyone – on the mission (you’re all deputy Uptons).

  20. reply

    Ray, I couldn’t agree with you more. Since that interview I’ve heard nothing but bad things about her regime from a few people. She iced a lot of good people in a reorganization that defies logic. Before the interview I met with a few people who live in the buildings…they were miserable and the only thing they asked me was “How well do you deal with frustration?” I wake up every day and thank God I don’t work there. You should be thankful that you’re out too. Unemployment sucks but at least you aren’t surrounded by incompetence anymore.

  21. reply

    lets face it the uofc don,t give a shit about the students at this point.they are trying to save their own ass.

  22. reply

    A question for Amy G’s husband, or perhaps the folks at Kersten:

    What is the science behind the problems? Is it faulty initial installation, deteriorating check valves, methane in traps?

    Does the problem occur in the supply lines or the drain lines or both?

  23. reply

    the problem is the tank in the basement to work right it needs to be haft water hafe air you get to much air then BOOM just in the water lines now they want to put a old pump that they have

  24. reply

    Don’t let this issue go dormant – they’re counting on you to ADHD over to something else. Besides, 33 comments is a nicer number.

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