Southern Utah University closes aging dorm, displacing 227 students mid-semester
Cedar City • For the past five years, Southern Utah University officials have planned to replace an aging three-wing dormitory, citing "significant safety issues."
Now they must shut down Juniper Hall in mid-semester, displacing 227 mostly freshman students, after its decrepit hot-water system failed last week. There's little hope for a permanent fix, because the pipes are not only compromised, but inaccessibly encased in concrete under the floors.
Officials are scrambling this week to find alternate housing for residents, who have until next Sunday to clear out. Stacks of cardboard boxes were piled Monday in front of the building, as student Dylan Erekson taped one together.
"They have a lot to handle and I think they handled it pretty well," he said of SUU administrators.
After the water pressure dropped in the system on Thursday, crews jack-hammered open a floor and capped a ruptured pipe.
"We are confident the repair worked, but the reality is it's really temporary. We could not guarantee [residents] would be comfortable throughout the cold season," said Donna Eddleman, vice president for student services. "We think it best to take advantage of the warmer weather, relocate students now and not simply hold out hope that the system will survive the winter."
Crumbling infrastructure is a problem at the state's older campuses, particularly the flagship University of Utah. The U.'s old dorms were replaced a decade ago, but lower campus is plagued almost weekly with electrical outages and hot-water line ruptures while administrators plead with lawmakers for the $99 million needed for upgrades.
Over the weekend, SUU officials decided to retire Juniper, completed in 1964, and notified students with notes taped to their doors, summoning them to a meeting where they outlined options.
Many Juniper residents, such as Erin Pollack, don't have cars. But the physical education major from Mesquite, Nev., is not "panicking" as she looks for a three-room apartment with five friends.
"I feel they could have known about the [heating] condition earlier," she said. But students were pleased that officials stressed the school intends to pull together as a community to help students who must relocate.
Shuttering the dorm was one of the most difficult decisions Eddleman said she has faced as an administrator, but the circumstances gave officials little choice.
"We believe all the piping was corroded and we're losing a lot of water," said David Tanner, vice president for facilities management. "Even the domestic water system is corroded. It is time to demolish the building. We do not want to put students back in there."
In 2007, SUU received permission to issue $17.5 million in bonds to replace Juniper and Manzanita Court, built in 1962. But the bond was enough for only one project. Manzanita was torn down during the summer of 2008 and the 400-bed Cedar Hall opened on the site in time for 2009-10 academic year. In Eddleman's perfect world, Juniper Hall's replacement would come just as swiftly. But the timing depends entirely on financing, which is in the hands of the state Board of Regents and the Utah Legislature, and a more likely completion date would be at least a couple years out.
Juniper, a three-story cinder-block building, was the least expensive of the Cedar City school's six housing options. Its closure means SUU, which considers itself a residential campus, is losing nearly one-third of its housing stock overnight at a time when demand for on-campus living has been on the rise around the state.
According to SUU's 2008 master plan, 80 percent of its students come from out of town and officials want to have beds available for every freshman who wants one. The plan, based on the philosophy that residential life is vital to the student experience and to boosting retention rates, envisions doubling the portion of students living on campus to 25 percent, which means expanding capacity to 2,500 over the next decade. As of last week capacity was 896, so the sudden loss of Juniper was a real setback.
The displaced students will get a $300 tuition break next semester and a pro-rated refund on their housing fees if they choose to be released from their housing contracts. There are just 18 vacancies in the school's remaining residence halls and officials will allow displaced students to "overcrowd" rooms with a willing friend.
Meanwhile, officials vowed to help students find new housing and have asked the community to offer accommodations.
"We were at [Sunday's] meeting to let [students] know we are on top of it and in coordination with [SUU] to make sure everyone has a place to land," said Bruce Crankshaw, president of the LDS Church's young-singles stake, which includes Juniper Hall. Leaders of nearby stakes have been asked to check if church members are willing to open their homes to displaced students.