February 28, 2012

Pierce residents cry foul over plumbing fiascoes

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,, 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?”