Bring your own hazmat suits: Jordan Hall disrepair causes illness in faculty

The walls in the stairwells of Jordan Hall are covered in water damage, mold, dirt, crumbling plaster and the pinkish mildew that often coats bathroom tiles. Photo by Bridget Early.

BRIDGET EARLY | OPINION EDITOR | bfearly@butler.edu

Multiple mornings a week, Pam Crea wakes up choking. Her throat, inflamed to the point of aching, closes at the slightest misdirected inhale, sending her into a nightmarish bout of suffocation that drags her from sleep. 

This has been Crea’s reality for well over a year. After 11 years of working on the third floor of Jordan Hall, her body is unable to keep up with the torment it is subjected to each time Crea climbs the water-stained stairs to her office in the sociology and criminology department. 

Crea’s health issues plague her, but only during the school year. On long breaks, she recovers enough to rest and let the inflammation in her respiratory system return to normal, though her energy is so low that she feels unable to participate in her usual active routine.  

Within days of returning to a full-time schedule on Jordan’s third floor, however, Crea begins coughing so severely that she can’t breathe. 

The administrative specialist’s battle with her health began after she contracted what she initially assumed was a cold, but which continued for months without abating. Her hacking cough, congestion and frequent headaches prompted her to visit her general practitioner, who insisted that she seek refuge in another building and who gave her an inhaler. Crea described it as a BandAid on a bullet wound. She went on to see a pulmonologist and an allergist, both of whom recommended that she relocate as soon as possible. 

Her throat and lungs are now so inflamed that when Crea wakes up choking in her sleep, her son has to help her find ways to begin breathing regularly. Recently, she has even been having trouble eating, as the smallest crumbs irritate her windpipe and send her into a coughing fit. 

Crea, who prefers to stay healthy and active by lifting weights, walking half marathons, kayaking and hiking, has been at odds with the Human Resources department at Butler for the past year and a half. Throughout the process, she has spent $4,000 of her own money to determine what was causing her symptoms, and has been urged by the three aforementioned medical professionals to seek alternative workspace on campus. 

Her medically-advised requests for relocation were denied. The university’s response to her plea was simple and inflexible: no administrative assistant may be separated from their department. 

“They decided they couldn’t set a precedent and have me away from my professors, even though all these professors said ‘we’ll work it out, Pam’s really good,’” Crea said. “And I never said I couldn’t come back into the building, I just can’t spend eight hours a day, five days a week in the building. It just compromises everything. And they said no.”  

Over the past year and a half, Crea has sought assistance through the HR department at Butler, and has been misguided at every turn. Initially, Crea was told that she should file a disability claim under the American Disabilities Act — which, conveniently enough for the HR department, would protect the university from claims that Crea’s workplace was detrimental to her health. But Crea’s “disability” was not a preexisting condition, it was caused by her workplace environment — and she had the medical opinions to support her claim. 

On Jan. 6, armed with two separate doctor’s notes from her specialists, Crea filed an insurance claim that met federal workman’s compensation specifications. She filed her complaint through the university, which uses United Healthcare for its employees. 

Butler University has done nothing to assist her.

When Crea checked back on Feb. 10, it was the first time the insurer had communicated with her about the claim in five weeks. She still has not received compensation. 

The HR department has declined to comment to the Butler Collegian.

“It doesn’t seem to me that anyone has done their homework, or read my doctor’s letters,” Crea said.

Crea left the university on Feb. 28 after the apathy toward her suffering irreparably damaged her relationship with her employers. She will be focusing on recuperating, both mentally and physically, though it breaks her heart to be leaving the students and department she has loved for the past 11 years.  

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In the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency developed a theory called Sick Building Syndrome, which has been documented in numerous old, poorly-maintained buildings across the country. Sick buildings usually develop when mold, pollen, dust and other allergens overwhelm a building. Between the mildew-stained walls, crumbling, waterlogged windowsills and dirt-encrusted vents, it seems obnoxiously obvious that Jordan Hall, one of the university’s oldest buildings, is a prime example of the phenomenon. 

The problem is easy to correct: all it takes is proper ventilation, frequent vacuuming, regularly changing the air filters, periodically cleaning the ventilation system, and finding the right humidity level for the building. Ideally, this means cutting back on the waterfalls that run down the insides of third floor windows and drip through the stairwell ceilings each time it rains. Crea asserts that she never saw the ventilation system cleaned in her 11 years at Butler. 

Sick Building Syndrome is fundamentally defined by the fact that — though people inside the building experience health issues that clearly seem connected to the building — there is no easily identifiable cause of illness. This does not, however, negate the severity of the issue, and SBS is covered by workman’s compensation measures, particularly when it causes debilitating illnesses or injuries. 

During her battle with HR, Crea was repeatedly directed away from filing for workman’s compensation, which would have guaranteed her financial dispensation for a workplace-induced illness, would have put an official legal complaint on the record and would have provided Crea the opportunity to pursue action against the university if she chose to. She was instead directed toward the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would have invalidated her insurance and compensation requests and removed the blame from the university. 

“Both of my specialists and my primary care physician told me that’s what [the HR department] would say, but that’s not what I have,” Crea said. “My body itself does not have a disability. I don’t have a disability until I’m in this toxic environment. As soon as I’m home for the summer, as soon as I’m home for a long break for Christmas, I don’t have these symptoms. They kept pushing the ADA process, and I got pretty angry, quite honestly. So I talked to a lawyer, and he said it absolutely was not ADA. And all through this whole process, I have never gotten a reason as to why they want me to go through ADA.” 

In Crea’s case, the university’s attempts to deny her claims hinged on the fact that people experiencing symptoms were too few and far between to constitute a legitimate concern — but their argument fundamentally contradicts the basic premise of SBS. The federally-documented phenomenon can be localized within sections or individual rooms of old buildings, which explains why the president is sitting pretty on the first floor while staffers on the third floor suffer. 

“What [the lawyers] keep claiming is that there’s nothing inside the building that you can’t find on the outside of the building,” Crea said. “When I said that to my pulmonologist and my allergist, they just laughed! They said, ‘well that’s fine and good that they’re saying that, but they do realize it’s a finite space, don’t they?’”

Butler’s lawyers also accused Crea of forcing her doctors to say what she wanted, and stated that — because her doctors had never been in the building — they could not possibly be qualified to comment on Crea’s illness. 

“I looked at [the lawyer] and I said, ‘I don’t think these doctors would compromise their medical licenses to ever say what I want them to say,’” Crea said. “Why would they have to be in the building to make a diagnosis on what’s wrong with my body?”

The administration has even verbally recognized Jordan’s descent into disrepair to Crea on several occasions. When actually held accountable, however, the administration says whatever it needs to avoid landing in the hot seat.

In an email sent in the spring of 2019, the LAS Dean’s Office asked that every administrative assistant in Jordan document the classrooms and offices near their offices that had mold or water damage. Crea counted three offices within her suite in the email, which was acknowledged by several members of the facilities and operations departments. 

An email sent from the Dean’s Office acknowledged the issues of mold and water damage.

“Even Doug Morris last spring said, ‘I wish I would have started fixing the third floor by you, because you’re sitting by the worst area,’” Crea said. “I mean, at one time, I had 20 trash cans out there catching water! Twenty!” 

Doug Morris has also declined to comment to the Collegian. 

Meanwhile, Crea’s symptoms match every symptom of SBS, but the university insurer told her first that they had never heard of it, then that it wasn’t a proven issue in Jordan — an unfair denial of Crea’s legitimate, medically-backed claim that unequivocally provides the foundations for a lawsuit.

These issues have been fastidiously documented over time, which only compounds the outrageousness of the situation. Crea designed a written proposal for a university-funded repair project, known as a Capital Request — complete with photos and a $95,000 estimate made by university project manager Don Borden — which was submitted to the university in 2019. 

The university never selected Crea’s report. 

The financials of the issue don’t add up either. $95,000 is a drop in the bucket for Butler; after all, the university charges each student $60,000 annually, on top of an endowment of over $200 million. It’s difficult to comprehend why Butler hasn’t allocated the funds to making a series of repairs that would make life exponentially better for the student body — 1,438 of which are LAS majors, the most of any college — and for faculty. 

The university’s pockets are positively overflowing with available funds, but they’re not being directed toward the buildings that really need it, and the fundraising goals for the next several years have nothing to do with Jordan Hall either. The new Butler Beyond program, which is designed to raise money for a new science complex, will theoretically rake in 200 million for a revitalized, expanded building — never mind the fact that Gallahue is completely functional, and its beautiful brutalist architecture could survive a nuclear barrage. 

Despite the conditions in Butler’s supposedly prized historical building, the university continues to gloss over its rough patches online; mantras including “preserving history, building possibility” are splashed across multitudinous pages of the university’s website in garish blue font. The administration digs its feet in when confronted with repairing the parts of the building that actually need it, but jump at the chance to refurbish the areas that impact Butler’s aesthetic value.

In Butler’s eyes, the only history worth preserving is the first-floor history that potential students and their parents see on their tours of “historic Jordan Hall.” 

Butler asserts on its website that it values its innovative commitment to “major investments in state-of-the-art educational facilities” in order to provide Butler students the tools they need to be successful. But the fact that faculty and staff are physically incapable of working in their own buildings makes Butler’s idea of “innovative” improvement seem apparent: their method of innovation is to shift the school’s priorities away from the liberal arts principles upon which it was founded.

According to WLFI, Purdue University has a similar issue. Their English building has conditions that are strikingly similar to Jordan’s, and the conditions are so poor that 16 classrooms have been closed due to fungal growth and other humidity-related conditions, and an anonymous faculty member has been placed on long-term leave due to the neurological and physical impact it has had on her. 

Just like at Purdue, Butler’s priorities are made visible by the state of the buildings. Now, their priorities are leeching at the health of the university’s supposedly-valued employees.  

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While Crea’s story is particularly horrendous, she is just one among those who have had their lives and careers upended by the toxicity of Jordan Hall. The conditions on the third floor have been deteriorating for the past decade, and water damage, crumbling-plaster-turned-dust, rotting wood and black mold have turned the building into the kind of health hazard the EPA dreams of shutting down.

The concerns about the toxicity on the third floor of Jordan Hall are twofold. Primarily, the concern is for the employees and students who spend the majority of their time directly exposed to mold and dust. The other concern, however, is that most of the faculty and staff members who are most at risk of health issues — the ones who have been relocated, in particular — have not been able to address the issue without fear of repercussions. Most have requested that they remain anonymous, or have fully declined an interview. 

Six different staffers have declined to comment on the basis that their lack of tenure could lead to serious consequences for them, or because they believe that the things they have to say could result in others being fired by the university. 

The overall reluctance is, frankly, far more telling than most interviews could be. Faculty members and staffers are scared of what the university would do to them if they speak to a student journalist. It is a grim situation when the university’s apathy toward the safety of employees who make this school worth attending cannot even be openly addressed by the people experiencing it. 

The thing is, Butler’s administration has no wish to be particularly involved, so long as they get their money from the student body on a yearly basis. If the Butler Beyond schematics produce a glittering, LEGO-brick science facility, they’ll rest easy at night — even if it sits in the shadow of a condemnable building.     

The Butler administration’s apathy toward Jordan is indicative of a larger problem — a complete and total disregard for the liberal arts. Like it or not, Butler is a liberal arts institution — everyone takes a Global and Historical Studies class, even the basketball players. And with very little variation, GHS classes are held in Jordan. It’s the same with Analytical Reasoning classes and with First Year Seminars. No matter your major, you’ll pass through Jordan Hall.

Butler’s leadership is quite clearly seeking to direct the university away from the liberal arts. Every eliminated program and exclusive, long-term fundraising campaign makes it that much clearer.

The buildings on this campus are the physical manifestations of where the administration’s priorities lie; the pharmacy program, the business program and STEM programs are top of the list. The liberal arts, meanwhile, can literally rot.

One has to ask — if the university was intentionally letting Jordan crumble to be rid of its responsibility to support liberal arts, would it look any different than how they are behaving now? 

Crea’s story ought to serve as a warning to other faculty, staff and students who frequent Jordan Hall. If the administration can sweep her story under the rug and avoid addressing the disrepair like they were nearly forced to, they absolutely will. While Crea’s health will return to some sort of equilibrium in time, someone else’s may not — particularly if the conditions are allowed to worsen.

Despite what Butler advertises, neither present nor future generations of Butler students will have their needs met if Jordan continues to function as a mold incubation unit — though, to be fair, it’d be the best science experiment the students in the newly-bedazzled science building could ever dream of. 

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One Comment;

  1. David G. Plummer said:

    More and more, I don’t think I would recognize my Alma Mater if I were to visit. When I went to Butler, there was concern about everyone…. students, staff, faculty, and administration. Sure, there were problems, but rarely did I see such disregard for others. I have commented on several articles over the last year or so and I see a pattern. Student Affairs remains in chaos, as demonstrated by the ongoing mess in the diversity program. The handling of the sexual assault issue provides another example. And now, allowing a key building to deteriorate to the point of it causing illness. Yeah, President Danko appears to be a good fundraiser. But, does that justify the ineptitude of his administration? Is fundraising so important that the rest of the University can decay and crumble? And what is the point of Butler Beyond if Mr. Danko’s administration isn’t concerned about Butler in the present?

    I am a firm believer that the buck stops at the top. President Truman was absolutely right. It was right in the 1940s and remains so today. Mr. Danko’s administration is fatally flawed. It is time for him to resign or for the Board to escort him out the door. I am not in the socioeconomic class to make million dollar donations, but I can and will vote with my checkbook. I expect more from a university president and Mr. Danko has demonstrated that he is not worthy of that title. As long as he is there, my checkbook is closed!

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