Campus called ‘non-functional’
It is not uncommon to see a rodent scurrying around inside a CUNY building. But at York College this semester, when rats announced their presence in a big way, faculty and staff took action. Rats overturned plants, invaded a candy box in the office of a faculty member who was on sabbatical and deposited droppings inside desk drawers and on cubicle floors, according to faculty and staff accounts. Nighttime security guards even reported startled rats running across the guards’ feet. So pervasive were such occurrences that the college’s Faculty Caucus created an Excel spreadsheet titled “Ratpocalypse 2,” documenting the incidents reported.
“You name an office, you name a location, generally [they’re] there,” Scott Sheidlower, PSC chapter chair at York College, said of the rats in an interview with Clarion. “This is a you-gotta-do-something situation – end of story.”
Sheidlower did do something. He, along with representatives of AFSCME’s District Council 37 and cross-campus PSC chapters for HEOs and CLTs, met with York College President Marcia V. Keizs in a March 10 labor-management meeting at which, according to Sheidlower, the administration took “full responsibility” for addressing the rat problem. A couple weeks earlier on February 23, the college’s Faculty Caucus unanimously passed a resolution declaring the campus a “non-functional teaching environment,” citing “rodent, squirrel and insect infestations,” unhygienic restrooms and dirty classrooms. After a tour of the campus on March 2, the union’s health and safety watchdogs described the situation at the college as “out of control” and “extremely unhealthy and dangerous.” The York College administration has since devised a draft response plan for addressing the vermin problem and unsanitary conditions at the school.
“The infestation at York is completely unacceptable; the health of our members and of our students is put at risk,” said PSC Treasurer Sharon Persinger. “Students who have to subject themselves to something so disgusting as an invasion of rats in order to get an education get the message that their work isn’t respected.”
The Jamaica, Queens, campus isn’t the only CUNY college dealing with rodents and other urgent health and safety concerns. In March, City health inspectors shut down Brooklyn College’s Boylan Hall cafeteria for two days after finding “roaches, mice and filth flies,” according to the New York Post. Union officials also note that extensive mice droppings were found in the North Hall at John Jay College earlier in the semester. The presence of such pests poses public health risks; they often carry diseases and spread harmful bacteria that can result in human ailments ranging from rashes to infections affecting the respiratory system, according to information on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
The PSC’s health and safety watchdogs say ongoing pest-control problems on CUNY campuses point to a reactive — rather than proactive — approach taken by administrators to addressing these issues.
“Pest control can’t be done on an as-needed basis,” Joan Greenbaum, PSC Health and Safety Watchdog co-chair, told Clarion. A few years ago, Greenbaum says, officials from CUNY’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety assured the union’s health and safety monitors that there was an “integrated pest management” system in place, CUNY-wide. Such a system, Greenbaum says, should consist of measures taken routinely (monthly or bi-monthly), under the supervision of campus facilities officials, using products that are not harmful to people. In light of the emergency situation at York College, she says, it doesn’t seem that an integrated plan is in place.
A CUNY spokesperson contacted for this story said each campus manages its own pest-control program. York College officials say the “appearance of rodents in some buildings” is probably due to recent construction on and near campus that seems to have disturbed nearby colonies of rats and mice. “The college has acted swiftly to address the health and safety concerns by increasing our efforts to place traps in highlighted areas, to seal openings, place traps around the perimeter of buildings and implement reporting and cleaning protocols,” reads a statement issued by the college.
The administration also shared a March 22 draft response plan with the college’s Faculty Caucus that includes canceling the contract with the college’s current pest-control service and hiring a new one, in addition to monitoring bathroom cleaning and conducting deep cleaning of classrooms during breaks, among other things. The Faculty Caucus is currently reviewing the plan.
Bill Ashton, leader of York College’s Faculty Caucus, says there have been issues with rodents and dirty bathrooms at the college for years. It’s only now that the situation has gone further out of control and faculty and staff have organized around the issue that administration is taking action. “What you see [at York College] is a long-growing problem and a long-growing frustration that took years to develop,” Ashton told Clarion.
Right before the spring semester began, Ashton began to hear many complaints about pests on the campus, and started documenting new and ongoing problems.
The recurrent sound of tiny, scampering feet in the library ceiling led staff to give a name — “Skippy” — to the squirrel who occupied the space above their heads. The stench of dead rodents that were not immediately removed filled the air in certain offices. Sewer flies routinely invaded a basement-level women’s bathroom.
Faculty reported mice running through classrooms, interrupting their classes. The stress of working in such an infested environment showed on the faces of staff, a faculty member reported.
The PSC, the Faculty Caucus and other unions on the campus will continue to press administration to implement ongoing procedures for preventing such problems in the future, Sheidlower said, so that the York campus is conducive to learning. “I’m happy that things are moving,” Sheidlower said. “I plan to keep working with other stewards; this is a college-wide issue.”
Ashton and Sheidlower spoke to Clarion as funding for CUNY was being debated in the state legislature. “If anybody from the State of New York had to see the conditions that our students have to learn in, they would be disgusted,” Ashton said.