“Look Peggy! This is a flea,” Emma Ross-Sermons (C’23) said, as she lifted one up on her pointer finger and squished it. Even with her glasses on, her housemate Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23) couldn’t manage to see the miniscule insect.
The Bairnwick Women’s Center, coined the Wick for short, has been a stable resource for women on this campus since its inception, by “promoting social justice, equality, and voice.” Yet, since the beginning of the semester in August, the infrastructure of the Wick has been overrun with these tiny parasites in a manner so severe that the conditions were deemed unlivable. With no house to gather in, the members of the Wick have found it difficult, bordering on impossible, to productively conduct events and offer resources to women in the same manner they have in the past.
When the first member of the Wick picked up her key from the residential life office on Friday, August 6, she was informed that there were fleas in the house. She was still allowed to move in and was informed that facilities management would not be able to look into the situation until August 11.
The next member of the Wick arrived on Monday, August 9, and when she asked res-life about the fleas and whether she’d be given accommodations, the resident said that she was told to move in and if it was really bad, to come back and they would figure something out.
It turns out the situation was really bad. The ten members living in the Wick tussled with the fleas until August 26th. They would have to evacuate the house at certain times for treatments to occur. As the fleas persisted, they were informed that they could purchase flea control resources with the house’s budget. Wick co-director Sara Brandenburg (C ’22) said, “We spent almost $150 on flea traps for the residents. This money is meant to be spent on our events and services for the student body.”
As Wick residents moved in and out of their rooms between intermittent flea treatments, they didn’t notice an improvement. Fleas bit their ankles during the night, and the harsh smell of chemicals filled the space. “We would like to know if we are breathing in anything that would physically harm us. Since moving in, numerous residents cannot get a full night of sleep. We are having nightmares about the fleas,” Brandenburg wrote in an email to the Dean of Students.
Resident Emma Ross-Sermons said, “August 27th was a Friday, that’s still the first week of classes. We get an email in the morning [from the Dean] saying that we were going to be moved to the Sewanee Inn for the weekend. They were going to do this electrostatic fog that would kill all the fleas, and someone was then going to come in afterwards and walk around and if it smelled bad or if there were still fleas, they were not going to let us move back in.”
Residents were told after the first evening in the Inn that they could return to the Wick. Yet when they packed their bags and settled back in at home, the air smelled strongly of chemicals, and the fleas, though not as strong as before, were still thriving. The Wick residents went back to the Inn.
On the 29th, the students were suddenly told to “Vacate the Premises” of the Inn and return back to the Wick, where they again encountered fleas. Using the channel of communication that seemed to get the quickest response, the residents emailed a dean again, explaining that returning to the Wick appeared unrealistic, unsafe, and unwise.
That same morning, Brandenburg decided to compile a list of Wick residents’ professors, emailing them all about how housing complications may be creating a distraction for the Wick residents as students. Ross-Sermons discussed how distracting the entire ordeal was, saying, “I was just really focused on getting my homework done. But there were still fleas and so the world just kind of stopped.”
From there, the University booked Wick members rooms at the Smokehouse Lodge in Monteagle. After a resident reported being sexually harassed by a man outside of their hotel rooms, and discovering the rooms smelled of cigarette smoke rooms (after the members, due to medical concerns, had requested non-smoking rooms), the Wick members requested to be moved.
The residents were then moved to a cabin behind the Smokehouse from August 29 to September 7. The cabin was booked and all members resided there on shared beds, pull-out couches and couches—using one University van to shuttle back and forth to the University for classes and work commitments. The Wick has only one van certified driver.
After the stint in the Smokehouse cabin, Wick members have been placed in temporary housing in different residence halls throughout campus for the remainder of the semester. It is inconclusive as to whether they will be able to move back into the house next semester.
Multiple times, the Wick was promised they would be back in their house in one day, two nights, or three weeks. Yet the infestation still persists, and each time they arrived back to the house, they had to reach out to administration informing them of the ongoing infestation.
Facilities Management has not responded to The Sewanee Purple’s efforts to contact them. Residential Life comments that, “All residents of the Women’s Center have been provided with alternative housing assignments for the remainder of this semester…Our office continues to work with Facilities Management to mitigate the issue of fleas within the Women’s Center building. As such, the building will remain closed until the concern has been resolved.”
The members of the Wick have promised to provide services and resources to those around them. Brandenburg said, “Due to the fleas, we are not able to have a sexual assault survivor support group created by CAPS at the Wick. The inability to not have the group here halts many of the intentions of this group to be in a student focused space where mental safety and privacy is promised to our peers.” In addition to support groups, like a peer support line, are difficult to offer without a concrete place to gather. Additionally, when members of the Wick were focusing on combating an infestation and having to navigate where they would be sleeping that evening, it was difficult to serve the Sewanee community first.
There has been no shortage of rumors circulating about the origin of the fleas. The Sewanee population has speculated on a variety of theories, from members of the Wick having unregistered pets to an animal living in the house over the summer. Resident Peggy Owusu-Ansah notes, “The fleas were not there before we left. So it had to have happened sometime between May 25 and August 6.”
Fleas, as parasitic animals, can only survive a couple days to up to two weeks without a host. This host is likely to be an animal, yet they also survive on human blood—without living on a human body, meaning that each time members of the Wick ventured back into the house, the problem was likely elongated. The CDC acknowledges how difficult it is to navigate a flea infestation. The last step of the operation could be where the process’s achilles heel might lie: follow up.
Since fleas have a complex life cycle, at certain stages of development they are actually resistant to insecticides. According to the CDC, “In order to get rid of fleas in all stages of the life cycle, two or more follow-up treatments within 5-10 days after the first application are needed. Additionally, vacuuming and sanitation practices should be ongoing throughout this period to pick up all remaining eggs and juvenile fleas.” The Wick stated that Facilities Management has claimed that a treatment and vacuuming have been done on the house every week. But, this may not be enough.
After a concerned parent of a Wick member called the residential life office, a member of the office explained that Facilities Management has searched the area multiple times and claimed there are no animals or possible hosts within the Wick’s walls. The problem appears to be the fact that the eggs are lying dormant in the carpets of the Wick, meaning the Wick will need treatments for weeks to come.
The Deeper Problem
Older students at Sewanee may recognize that this narrative echoes that of the Greenhouse’s Armentrout House in the Advent semester of 2019. The student organization, dedicated to sustainable practices and environmental awareness, was displaced from its permanent home on central campus after a black mold infestation gave way to other infrastructural issues. The University has yet to give a timeline for the Armentrout’s house repairs, despite the multiple student-led efforts to push for the house’s upkeep.
The former Greenhouse advisor, Dr. Eric Keen (C’08), commented on the similarities between the Armentrout house and the Wick. He said, “One lesson I have learned from the Armentrout Saga that might be helpful for the Wick house: Colleges suffer from institutional amnesia; it’s amazing how quickly they can lose sight of or forget about the organizations that make life on campus so special.”
He continued, “Sewanee’s administration has many competing priorities, and it can occasionally be strategic to rely on the passage of time to drop some of those priorities from their list. In other words, they try to ‘graduate the problem’. We have seen this with the Greenhouse and with the Divest Sewanee group.”
Keen suggested that resolving the treatment of the Wick will require a “broad-based, assertive, and constructive campaign.”
“Sometimes change takes time, and all students can do is keep the torch lit and keep passing the torch along. That may not be gratifying, but it is no less essential to bringing about the changes this place needs,” Keen adds.
Whether the Wick’s housing issue is remedied by the upcoming semester or not, Dr. Keen’s words raise valuable questions about infrastructural priorities in Sewanee.
Laurie Saxton, Sewanee’s Director of News & PR, stated, “Facilities Management continues to treat the Wick according to recommendations. The number of fleas has been reduced, but this type of flea is proving extremely difficult to eradicate despite the repeated treatments. Their goal is that the students will be able to move back into the Wick next semester, but only if the fleas are completely gone.”