Shamus Khan should not have to do this.
We are sitting in his office on the 6th floor of Knox Hall at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. As chair of the sociology department, he has a room that is fairly spacious—by Columbia standards—and the walls are either lined with books from every sociologist ever or colorful contemporary artwork. On his desk is a copy of his forthcoming book with public health professor Jennifer Hirsch, a study of the sexual lives of college students. In 2015, the Gothamist referred to his research as a “slightly creepy sex study.” It has also been described as a landmark study that “reveals the social ecosystem that makes sexual assault so predictable.”
But we aren’t talking about that. In fact, I am not even meeting him for office hours. Nor am I concerned about any midterm. I am meeting with him because, while I was relaxing on a beach over the summer, his department was facing an asbestos abatement happening beside their building. Asbestos is a silicate mineral used in building that has been heavily linked to cancer and other diseases. More than 39,000 Americans die per year from asbestos-related diseases. It is not safe.
I had been browsing Twitter in June when I came across a tweet by Khan. “Ugh. So @UnionSeminary knowingly and deceptively didn’t inform @Columbia about asbestos removal happening in the building attached to @columbiasoc. Broke the law. And when we complained to @nycgov, we’re told that since the project is complete, there’s nothing that can be done,” it read.
Union Theological Seminary has two ongoing construction projects on its Columbia-adjacent campus. The first is a full interior renovation of Hastings Hall on Broadway and 122nd, a Union residential building that is attached to Knox Hall. Contracted to Consigli Construction, the project is expected to be completed in July 2020. The second is the construction of 100 Claremont, a private development project by construction company Lendlease that will continue into 2022. When it is complete, the 42-story skyscraper will gaze down on Morningside Heights, the first of its kind in the neighborhood. I can see the construction happening 20 feet away from Khan’s window.
When Khan composed his June tweet, it had been months since he’d left a meeting with Columbia Arts and Sciences, Union Theological Seminary, and their construction liaisons. The meeting was in March, held to address the asbestos abatement in 100 Claremont that had begun in January. At the time, the old building on 100 Claremont was being torn down when Khan discovered that there was asbestos in it. When he raised his concerns to the university and Union, they were largely unresponsive. “It wasn’t until I had to get, in some ways, really unpleasant in demanding a response that we were actually able to get things done,” Khan said. Eventually, David Greenberg, head of facilities, helped arrange the March meeting. Two months passed. And then Khan found out that there had been another asbestos abatement in the building beside where they had spoken.
If comedy comes in threes, asbestos comes in twos. According to Khan, Union’s construction liaison knew there was an ongoing abatement in the building next to Knox Hall since January but failed to inform the sociology department. “They’re required, if people are physically proximate, to put up notice. And they didn’t do that. It should have been on the front door of Knox,” he said. “And they claimed that we weren’t next to them, but we pointed out that we actually have a door that physically goes in the building.” Despite filing a complaint with the city, Khan was told that he needed physical proof. But the abatement had been completed by then.
An email recently sent to me by Daniel Held, Columbia Facilities’ Assistant Vice President for Communications, implied that no laws were broken. In the email, Held informed me that UTS is currently sharing the air monitoring results of the asbestos abatement, that they are in compliance with state and federal asbestos regulations, and that UTS has represented to Facilities that the abatement was handled in accordance with city and state regulations, including the notifications.
After March, more meetings followed. In June, the parties held an all-community meeting that had been promised in March but never materialized until Khan raised the issue again. While Columbia, Union, and its construction people were all involved in the debacle, Khan emphasizes that it was Union and its liaisons at Consigli and LendLease who failed to take initiative. “In my experience, Union was not particularly cooperative or even forthright in what was happening. In particular, their construction liaison person consistently was not truthful about what was happening,” he said.
In addition to the obvious health concerns about asbestos, Knox Hall residents faced a litany of issues related to the ongoing projects. One of these was accessibility. Given the Hastings Hall renovation, a walkaround on 122nd was built, but a ramp into Knox did not exist until Khan pressured Union about the problem. Some graduate students, particularly women, also expressed concerns relative to Title IX issues and how the environment might impact those who were pregnant or nursing.
And then there was the sound. Construction is loud and rarely conducive to teaching. A graduate student in the sociology department who I’ll call Frantz Fanonymous said, “I honestly can’t imagine it being a functional working space if there’s a pounding sound every two seconds. Can you imagine having a job talk or conducting a lesson?” I could not, in good conscience, imagine it. Again, Khan took point on the task, going so far as to speak to his friends at the New York Philharmonic to ask about acoustical curtains. Eventually, LendLease and Columbia installed soundproof CitiQuiet windows in the building.
Khan asks me to look around the room, and I notice the air purifier. There are many more in the hallways like it. “This is for the broader environmental pollution that’s happening now but may ramp up. It was a solution I fashioned to concerns about air quality in the building.” While noting that Columbia offered to pay for them, “It would be nice if someone else planned for how to generate solutions,” he added.
Despite the many solutions Columbia, UTS, and its liaisons failed to generate, Columbia eventually became more responsive after the meetings held earlier in the year, even offering to relocate the sociology department out of Knox Hall. “It would have cost Columbia millions of dollars,” Khan said. “And they were willing to do that because of our concerns about things that were going on.” Eventually, the department declined the option but worked with the registrar to make sure that there were classrooms available outside of Knox for the Fall 2019 semester in case they were needed.
On September 10, Columbia Client Services also notified Knox Hall occupants of the creation of a task force dedicated to addressing Union’s ongoing construction projects. It is a monitored email address run by multiple members of Facilities where concerned members of the Columbia community can ask questions.
While Columbia Arts and Sciences has recently improved its relationship with Knox residents, the broader Columbia administration has been embroiled in public controversy. It recently disbanded the marching band on the basis of late paperwork, but the move is being interpreted as part of a larger crusade against the band’s unorthodox traditions and practices. It has also attempted to mediate other challenges between students and the university at large. Last month, the National Labor Relations Board proposed a regulation that would prevent teaching and research assistants at private universities to unionize. In an email to the student body, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson stated that the university intended to continue its negotiations with the Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW, but comprehensive outcomes have yet to be seen.
Even though Columbia’s position on labor unions have been the subject of extended debate and the Knox Hall controversy relatively little, Frantz Fanonymous sees them as interconnected. “These issues are fundamentally tied…the issue of labor rights and the issue of Columbia’s decision-making. If this were a union situation, we wouldn’t have Shamus trying to figure out what to do. We’d have lawyers. And we would have representation that exceeds the administrative calculation of the university,” he said, adjusting his glasses.
The relationship between Columbia, Union Theological Seminary, and its liaisons have improved since the asbestos fiasco that kicked off the calendar year. Now there are monthly meetings for parties to express their ongoing concerns. In addition to installing the ½ inch-thick windows now lining Knox’s facade, Columbia has also contracted independent consults to monitor the environmental conditions in Knox Hall and hired a pest control company that makes weekly inspections.
But over half a year has passed. “I first raised this in December of 2018,” said Khan. “And to me, it’s a classic example of what makes the culture of Columbia really challenging. In order to get attention to an issue, you have to be really disruptive and unpleasant.”
“It’s not up to a chair to communicate issues of work and building conditions to inhabitants,” Frantz added.
asbestos via Bwog Staff