Giving back: Why we need to take better care of Vassar

One of the student dorm dumpster areas on Vassar campus. Trash has piled up to the point where it has overflowed out of the dumpster and has accumulated in the general area. Courtesy of Facilities Operations.

As students who live at Vassar for nine months every year, we probably have the strongest opinions when it comes to the topic of its dorms and apartments. From the first-year who finds themselves stuck in a less-than-ideal dorm room to the jaded senior who has given up on relying on the Office of Residential Life, it’s not uncommon for Vassar students to feel unsatisfied with the state of their on-campus housing. So naturally, we have a tendency to complain about the quality of Vassar’s dorms, apartments and other facilities when given the chance.

According to the accounts of various students, Vassar has a long list of problems that should immediately catch the attention of Facilities Operations, the administrative organization in charge of Building Trades, Ground Services, Custodial Services and other maintenance groups. There have been complaints about damaged bathrooms, rodent and pest infestations in dorms, broken laundry machines and elevators, flaws with plumbing, heating and flooring—that’s just to name a few. In general, these grievances seem to center around the poor quality of the infrastructure that makes up Vassar’s housing and the lack of accommodations. Given the age of most of these buildings, some of the dorms seem to be simply falling apart into ruin. This concern can be best represented with the state of Raymond House, which has developed somewhat of a negative reputation compared to the other dorms in terms of living conditions (The Clove, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” 11.03.2016).

“The flooring can be a problem…There are door handles that can be a problem sometimes in Raymond. It’s not uncommon for a student to say ‘I tried to open my door and the door handle fell off’ and we have to get facilities to go put it back on. Our windows have been perpetually a problem…[Y]ou can push down on the lip of the window to close it but because of the warped vinyl, it doesn’t fit into the frame very well, so when you push down it could actually push the window out which has happened over the course of the years,” stated Raymond House Advisor and Associate Director of Residential Education and Residential Life Michael Drucker when asked about the common complaints that he receives.

Drucker further explained that the sames types of problems that he hears about Raymond can also come from students living in other dorms like Main and Noyes. These issues can range from elevator malfunctions to toilets going out of order due to blockages. However, perhaps the greatest source of the students’ frustrations is the long delays that accompany any complaint that they send to the administration, even when the issue is dire. Sometimes, a problem can take several days to fix. Other times, it seems as if all the complaint just get lost in a void of unopened emails and unanswered phone calls, never to be heard of again.

The lack of an immediate response by the college may seem to signify administrative incompetence, but in truth, quickly addressing the grievance of 2,500 students is nearly impossible, especially while respecting the time and labor of workers.

“The timing for work getting done depends greatly on the scope of the work, the capacity that our partners over in Facilities Operations have at the time to complete the work, the personnel on hand, the resources and materials to do whatever work it is,” Drucker explained. “Sometimes there is a barrier to doing certain work because of the time of year. There can be work that really requires there to be no residents living in the area so the work will be postponed until a break, over winter break, over summer break because it can’t be done while people are cohabitating with that area.”

But before we criticize Vassar for its lackluster living conditions, we must first consider whether our own actions are impeding the progress of Facilities Operations. In fact, it’s likely that we’re at least partly responsible for the College’s slow response time in addressing its service requests.

According to a series of interviews with the staff at Facilities Operations, it takes an incredible amount of time, manpower and money for the workers to complete the multitude of maintenance tasks that allow Vassar to function every day. Starting early in the morning, custodial teams go through and clean an established list of academic and residential buildings. Concurrently, trade groups respond to a long list of work orders where they take care of multiple issues in one building at a time and troubleshooters follow around-the-clock shifts in order to perform emergency repairs and extreme weather responses whenever they arise. This entire procedure is finely tuned to match the precision of clockwork, and these workers have a lot to do and very little time. That’s why whenever they receive an emergency service request regarding a damaged bathroom stall or a broken elevator caused by a handful of roughhousing students, they must delay their scheduled repairs to respond to the sudden request.

“[T]he other day, we had a point brought up that the sinks in a certain dormitory bathroom had been plugged and don’t drain and had been that way forever. And the reality was that, no, they weren’t plugged. They were not flowing because one bathroom sink had had the contents of a fishbowl dumped into it—including the lava rock and the pebbles—and it backed up. Another sink next to it had the residual of vomit in it, which someone tried to wash down instead of taking the solids out which plugged the drain, so it backed up,” stated one Facilities Operations staff member. “Obviously, these are two situations and they’re unique in that they’re behavior that caused a problem with the facilities which impacts the whole community.”

According to the workers, these kinds of incidents occur countless times everyday, often as a consequence of students’ thoughtlessness. For instance, one of the most time-consuming endeavors for the maintenance staff is performing repairs on the Walker Field House roof system due to frequent leaks. At first, they were puzzled over why so many leak areas kept appearing shortly each repair. However, after finding graffiti, furniture and foot imprints on the roof of Walker, they discovered that the leaks were caused by students climbing on top of the building, which not only allows water infiltration that damages the roof system but also produce dangerous conditions for students underneath the roof within the building. Staff members have observed this pattern of water leaks in other buildings as well. Whenever they have found evidence of people climbing onto the roofs of dorms, such as beer cans, chairs and cigarette butts, they have also observed an increase in water leaks and roof damage in those areas.

However, this is just one of many examples of easily preventable issues that regularly hinder Facilities Operations’ progress in refurbishing the dorms and facilities. According to another member of the staff, the workers in charge of Grounds Services are continually hindered by reports of students knocking and kicking heavy metal trash cans into the Vassar lakes. Every time this happens, the team must stop whatever repairs that they are working on to drive a backhoe to the Sunset Lake or the Vassar Lake and fish out the trash can from the water. Afterwards, several workers have to carry hulking, soaked trash cans back to their original positions, usually on top of a hill. In addition, despite how unbelievable it may sound, these incidents have occurred so many times—around six times a semester for the past several years—that the College has resorted to simply removing some of these trash cans from the campus permanently.

“These garbage cans are very heavy…[but students] throw them in the lake all the time…And the ones that get kicked over [happen] on a regular basis, weekly,” explained one staff member. “[For some,] we actually removed the cans because we were tired of pulling them out of the lake.”

Facilities Operations workers retrieving a trash can from Sunset Lake. Courtesy of Facilities Operations.

Another large time commitment for Facilities Operations workers is the inexhaustible amount of trash which must be cleaned up in areas with a high concentration of students. According to the workers, much of their time that could be going towards improving the quality of the campus is spent picking up the endless stretch of litter that accumulates in student dorms, inside the College Center, around the Gordon Commons, in Noyes Circle and outside the College Center where the food truck is parked. Among the residential areas, the townhouses and the terrace apartments as well as Josselyn, Jewett and Cushing Houses generally accrue the most disheveled garbage in the dumpster areas. In contrast, areas around Strong and Lathrop House are among the most well-kept.

The most extreme cases of garbage accumulation occur after large student events such as Halloweekend, Founder’s Day, move-in day, move-out day and graduation. Clean-up after these events is described by staff as “10 times worse” than usual, often taking up an entire week of their limited available time while employees still have to perform all the other daily tasks that they are required to finish. During senior week alone, the staff estimates that it takes a total of around 250 hours for a standard team of six people to return the campus back to its original state. On top of that, the amount of time and effort that goes into cleaning up Graduation Hill is in a class of its own. One employee remarked, “After we have graduation…[i]t looks like a bomb of garbage went off on that hill. We haul it out of there by the dump truck. They don’t have enough garbage cans there.”

Whether or not these problems are the result of carelessness and laziness on the part of students, the responsibility to address all these issues and cleaning the college falls under the jurisdiction of Facilities Operations. However, the sheer volume of these student-related incidents has only exacerbated the long service request wait times that Vassar students are so frustrated about.

In truth, Vassar has several large-scale restoration projects laid out at the behest of the students, but the enormous resource burden that Facilities Operations have to shoulder have ended up causing major delays. These projects include campus-wide sidewalk repairs, lawnwork and dead tree removal.

Not only that, Facilities Operations is planning to undertake a series of major dorm renovations in response to the campus-wide complaints about shabby living conditions. Starting with Cushing and Ferry Houses in 2018 and transitioning to Josselyn and Raymond in 2019, the team has set up a detailed schedule in which they aim to completely overhaul the student rooms, hallways, bathrooms and common spaces with new floors, furniture and utilities. Daily calls for miscellaneous repairs only eat away the limited, precious time they have available in the day that could be better served in turning these renovation plans into reality.

“[T]he more time we have to put into repairing things [and] the more things that are damaged by unusual use or abuse, the less time we have time to do the proactive things in the dorms to make them in a continuous good state of shape or condition,” a Facilities Operations staff member explained. While they were quick to stress that these problems were not the fault of every student on campus but a select few, they noted that a more attentive mindset of campus care within the Vassar community can go a long way in helping Facilities Operations respond to the needs of the students. “[L]ike any place, the majority of the students respect their community property and respect each other, but you do have incidents where, somehow, there’s a misdirection or a loss of awareness of the damage they’re now co-occurring…within the area they live.”

As students of Vassar, we have an obligation to take better care of our home. Rather than treat these facilities as if they will magically reset to normal at the end of every day, we should be more mindful of our behavior and how it affects the rest of our community. Most importantly, we must remember that even the smallest actions can lead to large consequences.

For instance, it’s a popular trend for Vassar students to steal something from the Gordon Commons, whether it be a cup, plate or silverware. Given how much cookware dining services has, many people assume that no one will notice if they took one or two for their own personal use. However, what they don’t realize is that each attempt to restock all the cookware costs around $16,000. Furthermore, so much cookware goes missing so frequently that these purchases end up occurring multiple times in a semester. According to an interview with Food Services, the collective damage of the stolen cookwares can amount to more than $64,000 in a year.

A sign issued by Vassar Dining Services requesting students to return the stolen cookware. Courtesy of Steven Park.

Ultimately, our own actions heavily influence the quality of our living conditions at Vassar. Instead of passively criticizing all the aspects that are unsatisfactory with the campus, everyone needs to play an active role in turning Vassar into a place that we can be proud of. Starting with the upcoming Founder’s Day Weekend and throughout the rest of the semester and beyond, let’s treat our home with better care and respect for the sake of not just the students on campus but the entire Vassar community.

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