Opinion | Pitt’s administrative failures cost students thousands, and compensation is needed

Every time the coronavirus crisis seems to have gotten as bad as it can get, it gets worse for some of us.

For most college students like myself, the major problem has been one of inconvenience in the adjustment to online classes and social distancing. Others, including many graduate students, have experienced a loss of income and summer internship and job opportunities. At Pitt, some on-campus students — who had been promised partial refunds if they moved out early — lost thousands of dollars worth of property after Pitt staff threw their belongings out.

I was one of them, and I am still waiting on more information regarding compensation. It would not be unreasonable to expect a total refund after what happened.

Sometime last week, the University decided that Panther Hall, a student dormitory on upper campus, would be converted into a facility for the local medical community during the COVID-19 crisis. At the time this decision was made, some students had yet to move their belongings out of that dorm — among them, yours truly.

I had no reason to think I would return to find my dorm restored to the state in which I had found it back in August, empty as every other room in the hallway. After all, the University told students they would receive a 30% refund on their housing costs if they moved out between the dates of March 21 and April 3. I returned to my dorm on March 29 — definitely before April 3.

I spent hours inside the basement of the building that day making and receiving phone calls from the administration, which reassuringly told me that my belongings had been safely moved somewhere. It wasn’t until after I read an article from The Pitt News, in which the University admitted to and apologized for discarding the belongings of some Panther Hall residents, that I realized that was not true.

University administration previously announced that it had decided to make Lothrop Hall available to UPMC staff for the same purposes on March 19, but only said the possibility of making additional halls available was “under consideration” then. The University never officially announced that Panther Hall and other buildings were also going to be used for this same purpose.

Not only had on-campus residents been told that they had until April 3 to receive a refund if they moved out, but Pitt said they could still come pick up their belongings after that date — they just wouldn’t receive a refund. This is the kind of inefficient and inconsistent communication that needs to be avoided during public health crises such as this. Pitt should have made it mandatory for on-campus students to leave weeks ago and, if needed, moved them into temporary housing if there was even a chance that students would need to clear out of multiple buildings completely.

Beyond failing to communicate that what was happening at Lothrop was also happening at my residence hall, Pitt also has yet to give me a clear answer on how much I will receive as compensation for the more than $3,000 worth of property that was discarded without any warning. It took quite a while to piece through everything that I knew I had in my dorm before spring break, and even longer to come up with estimates on their value, both since some items were purchased at discounts that may not be found again, and others had personal significance on which a price tag cannot be put.

If you read the opinions section a couple of weeks ago, you saw my — admittedly short — vignette about my Hawaiian shirt collection. To my current knowledge, at least 5 of those shirts — including the first one I ever had — were among the victims.

When I had the final tally of items that I owned, recalled from memory and from looking at pictures, I was short of a guitar that I had owned for more than four years without any damage, an old laptop that still held significant data, nearly every book I have ever owned on economics — a total in the dozens — some textbooks that were borrowed from Hillman Library, and an array of dress clothes that included moderately to expensively priced shirts, ties, an overcoat and even a suit.

The frustration at having to repurchase possessions that shouldn’t have been lost is definitely one of the milder side effects of this crisis in our personal lives. I didn’t lose any items of urgent need, and I didn’t lose any precious family heirlooms.

On the other hand, what I did lose was quite a bit of confidence in the ability of institutions to handle the current state of affairs. For the University to discard my belongings, and those of other students, after at first saying they were safely being stored, and after all students were promised the ability to come collect their possessions throughout the rest of the semester, is unacceptable. The lack of coordination between the administration and the students is inexcusable.

Michael Clifford writes about politics and economic policy. Write to Michael at mjc199@pitt.edu.

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