Taking on mold at SDSU

It’s probably been three months or so since a colleague of mine here at the Argus Leader took a late-night phone call from a South Dakota State University staff member with a gripe.

He was upset about mold and other environmental concerns in Scobey Hall on the SDSU campus and suggested we should be looking into it before he abruptly hung up.

As the primary reporter on higher education, I received the few notes my co-worker had scribbled down and over the coming weeks, started to kick a few rocks to see what I could uncover underneath them.

Mold is not a new issue at SDSU. In 2002, university administrators told the state Board of Regents that they needed to spend as much as $6 million to renovate the cooling and heating system in SDSU’s Animal Science Complex and to do other work at a time when employees were complaining that the complex made them sick.

Some workers insisted that black mold in the duct system had caused them stomach pains, rashes and other health problems. SDSU administrators disputed that and said they were only doing the renovation work “because it needed to be done.”

Of course the difficulty in revisiting this topic again was clear from the moment the anonymous tipster quickly hung up on my colleague.

Complaining is easy. Standing behind those complaints with a real name and a real face and real facts is not as simple.

What I found in my initial discussions was a definite paranoia about retribution. People suggested to me that they were required to sign gag orders because they were complaining too much about sick buildings. Make the mold go away, they responded, and the complaints will stop. And it did go away for a while, they said, but now it is back.

For every current or former staff member willing to speak up about mold and mildew issues in Scobey now, there are five who did not want to be identified. They feared for their employment or their treatment if they did complain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if at different times in SDSU’s history, that fear was founded. That’s true in a lot of work places, Jason McEntee told me. He’s an associate professor and English Department head at SDSU.

There are long-time employees at SDSU, McEntee said, “who may have been part and parcel of past administrations” where retribution was a legitimate concern. “There are still people kind of reminiscing about the 1980s, and I think some of those attitudes from previous decades and previous administrations … and I’m not just talking about the SDSU administration … it’s just that, people around a long time really do fear upper level administration, and I think it is a holdover to be honest with you.”

I found several very candid former and current staff members in the last few months who greatly helped this story in ways big and small. Marlys Bohn, former head of nursing student services at SDSU, retired on a medical disability 15 months ago because of what she called her exposure to an environmental hazard in Wagner Hall where she worked.

Many people I talked to found her credible and believable, even if the university insisted it couldn’t confirm her story.

John Taylor, a professor in the English Department, and department secretary Kathie Prahl offered glimpses into the health issues that still afflict staff and students in Scobey Hall, even as the university scrambles to move them into different quarters.

That willingness to talk on the record made this a story, which is scheduled to run Sunday in the Argus Leader.

But the same is true of Provost Laurie Stenberg Nichols and Dean Kattelmann, assistant vice president for facilities at SDSU. They didn’t dodge any of my questions. They know they have had mold and mildew problems on their campus. They are promising a remedy to that and not retribution.

Some people will believe that. Some people won’t.

“I think it’s one of the significant strengths of our current provost, Laurie Nichols, and Dennis Papini, dean of the College of Arts and Science, that you will never have to fear retribution for speaking your mind,” McEntee told me. “The way they have responded to this particular incident is nothing short of remarkable in my estimation.”

Will everyone agree with that? I’m not holding my breath.

I do believe there have been environmental problems in some of the aging buildings where faculty and staff work at SDSU. I do believe Nichols, Kattelmann, Papini and the others are trying to address it.

Unless you are willing to step forward like Marlys Bohn did and identify the problem with real support, I’m not sure how anyone can believe otherwise.