The Pei residence halls at New College of Florida were designed in the 1960s by famed architect I.M. Pei. Today, according to a consultant, they suffer from serious problems, including mold, structural issues and failing air conditioning systems. [ New College of Florida ]

After weathering a tumultuous end to the last academic year, third- and fourth-year students returning to New College of Florida could look forward to one silver lining for the coming school year: the promise of premium apartment-style dorms, typically reserved for them.

But in June, returning students got a surprise email from New College housing director Sean Brueggemann: “You might have noticed your housing changed,” the email read, going on to explain that the school was pulling existing housing assignments to make way for new student athletes.

Instead, some returning students will be shifted into dorms with rampant mold and concerning structural problems identified by a consulting firm hired by the school. The May 22 report from Partner Engineering and Science Inc. said that two of the buildings to which students have been assigned — known as the Pei dorms — “should not be occupied in their current condition.”

That some New College dorms suffer from cracked ceilings and moldy carpets is not news. Complaints over poor conditions have been extensively covered by The Catalyst, the school’s student newspaper, especially in the Pei dorm buildings, constructed in 1965.

The school received a similar mold and mildew report in 2020, interim president Richard Corcoran told New College trustees on Monday, pointing out that the issues went unaddressed by prior administrations.

“I consider it a gross malfeasance in leadership that this has occurred. More than a decade of reports have been ignored,” Corcoran said. “We are the first administration to order a report and make that report public.”

The Pei dorms also showed signs of structural damage, with large cracks running up and down the buildings’ facades, according to the report. The problem areas have only been “patched and/or temporarily repaired” without addressing the underlying issues.

Addressing these issues in the Pei dorms would mean repairing the exterior structural damage and replacing their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, according to the report. But that won’t happen, Corcoran told trustees. The age of the Pei buildings makes replacing their internal systems impossible, he said.

The same consultants will revisit the campus soon to reassess the facilities before students arrive, Corcoran said. While some rooms are expected to be occupied in the coming academic year, more than 200 are beyond repair and will remain vacant for 2023-24, he said. Approximately 150 returning students who cannot be accommodated on campus will be housed at a nearby hotel.

Neither New College nor Partner could immediately confirm that the firm will perform a reassessment, and the school has not responded to requests for a detailed list of repairs.

The Pei dorms were designed in the 1960s by famed architect I.M. Pei, and once were heralded as some of the most distinctive university buildings in the state, according to the New College website. Today, they need more than a new coat of paint, according to Michael Rubino, a mold remediation expert who reviewed a copy of the consultant report.

He said replacing the buildings’ aging ventilation systems should be a top priority but it’s not enough. Water that accumulates around air conditioners is often the source of contamination in older buildings, but the problem will keep coming back unless the structural issues letting moisture in are also addressed, he said.

“Safety needs to be the priority,” Rubino said. “If you’re putting your resources to new walls and a coat of paint and leaving these larger issues unaddressed, you’re not making an ethical decision.”

Mold can cause allergic reactions, irritation and infection, according to the Florida Department of Health. Those symptoms may be more severe for those with asthma or a compromised immune system. Some molds may release toxins that can be harmful if ingested, but the effects are not well understood, according to the agency.

Health concerns come on top of complaints from returning students that they had been pulled from the coveted apartment-style dorms typically reserved for upper-year students.

According to the school’s email to returning students, the dorm reassignments will prioritize apartment-style dorms for athletes and transfer students that New College pursued in its drive to break enrollment records in Corcoran’s first year at the helm.

Premium housing is just one of the incentives designed to lure new students, along with waived fees, scholarships and $1,400 laptops.

Existing students were given a three-day grace period to withdraw from student housing without penalty should they choose to live off-campus. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Sarasota is nearly $1,600 per month, according to Zillow. That’s about $550 more than similar on-campus housing.

The bait-and-switch promise of a private apartment was the last straw for rising third-year journalism major Basil Pursley, who needs access to the private kitchens attached to apartment-style dorms to prepare meals that won’t exacerbate his ongoing health issues.

“Last year felt unreal, but this was really personal,” Pursley said. “It went from feeling like they don’t care about us to feeling like they don’t care about me.”

Pursley made the last-minute decision to pull his enrollment and transfer to Hampshire College, a private Massachusetts college that offered to match tuition for New College students. Pursley was notified late Friday that New College administrators had approved his request for an apartment-style room, but by then it was too late.

“I don’t feel that much different,” Pursley said after reading the email. “This was not the only thing that was an issue, and looking back it really didn’t matter to me what housing I got. I just needed out.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.