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Old Westbury president addresses mold problem in residence halls

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III used his annual convocation speech at SUNY Old Westbury on Wednesday to touch on an unusual topic: mold.

The college’s president said students had raised concerns that the mold problem in residence halls, dating to at least last year, remained unresolved. But SUNY Old Westbury is taking steps to eliminate it, he said. 

“Let me state clearly that I hear and understand your concerns,” Butts told several hundred students and faculty members gathered in the university’s athletic center. “I can’t stress enough how much we’d like to see this remedied as much as you.”

Some student activists said the problem persisted and had even resulted in the hospitalization of several undergraduates.

“It’s been really serious,” said Noa Caines, , a junior from Manhattan who set up a page about the issue. “We are trying to get the message out there in the most peaceful way possible.”

College officials said they knew of one student who went to the hospital for treatment for possible mold-related problems in August, and two last year. Butts said college officials had received four confirmed reports of mold issues from students during the summer and since students moved into dorms for the fall semester around Aug. .

“In all of these cases, we responded within hours and remedied the concerns immediately,” Butts told the crowd.

In an interview, he also said the college had been in touch with the New York State Department of Health and SUNY system state officials.

“They seem to feel that we have taken the proper measures and the condition has been remedied,” Butts said.

He and college spokesman Michael Kinane said steps taken include deep cleaning of the dorms with anti-mold materials, installation of commercial dehumidifiers, and cleaning of AC and heating units.

Caines was not convinced.

“It is really difficult because the school’s entire slogan is ‘Own Your Future,’ but it’s like how can you own your future if you are spending more time in the hospital than you are getting your education and getting your degree,” she said.

Butts praised Caine and others for speaking out. “For those students voicing their opinion today I applaud you for expressing yourselves,” the longtime civil rights leader said, noting, “I too come out of a season of protest.”

“Advocating for yourselves and for a change you think is needed are part of the spirit of this place we call SUNY Old Westbury.”

But Butts added, “If you are asking me to make mold not grow, well that is not within my power. What is in my authority is to try to make the conditions in our residence halls at least as not conducive as they can be to the mold. And I believe we have done and are doing that.”

Bart Jones covers religion at Newsday, where he has worked since , and is a former foreign correspondent for The in Venezuela.

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