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  • Brendan Byrne

The urgent need to address Hamilton's extreme heat

A fan in a student's room in Root Hall. Extreme heat was a constant source of discomfort for students in dorms at the start of this semester. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

Continuing what has now become an annual tradition, Hamilton’s campus began the year facing oppressive heat in dormitories and dining halls alike. Throughout the first weeks of this year, the constant topic of conversation was this heat, how overwhelming and uncomfortable it was, and how challenging it was to work in such conditions for dining hall staff. It was impacting peoples’ sleep, and by extension, their classwork, their social lives, and other responsibilities so often taken on by Hamilton’s population, but this isn’t an issue unique to the beginning of this year. Each summer residents struggle with these conditions, and at the start and end of every year, the heat seems to get worse and stretch further into the semesters themselves. As climate change continues to increase temperatures, it’s time for Hamilton to take long-term action to confront heat on a campus built for the cold.

While student perspectives on the heat are unique, they share a universal thread of dissatisfaction and discomfort. Diego Inunza ‘25 shared their own perspective with me in conversation, having lived in Milbank over the summer and spending these first hot weeks on campus in Root Hall. They shared that some friends were sleeping in their cars to escape the ovens dorm rooms were becoming, they themselves often slept uncomfortably in their dorm’s common rooms. Sleep was a major problem for most of the campus, but especially in Diego’s case as she already struggles with insomnia and this lack of comfortable sleeping conditions severely impacted their ability to cope with academic rigor and a host of other responsibilities. They expressed to me that they have autism, and related to that need the physical stimulus of a blanket in order to sleep, which on top of the already unkind conditions for sleep made their first few weeks on campus this year nearly unlivable.

At a college like Hamilton where academic rigor is the standard, rest is essential for students to function properly in their lives. Heat acted as a barrier to many students hoping to set themselves up for success early in the semester.. As a sociologist who studies subjects like climate activism and climate racism, Diego pointed out the role Hamilton has played in exacerbating the climate crisis in part through its continued investment in fossil fuels. They expressed their ultimate opinion on Hamilton’s refusal to consistently install air conditioning in dorm buildings, saying:

“I think that the need for air conditioning within our campus is something that ultimately is not a detriment to our green footprint on this campus. I always see and understand those concerns, but the issue is that climate change is already real and has happened and will continue to happen, and the effect of that is that it’s going to be hotter during the hotter months, and those effects are present and prevalent at Hamilton today. It doesn’t matter what systems are thought of or things that can be done in the future when students are struggling right now to simply exist on this campus.”

Hamilton’s climate impact as an institution is real, as is the impact of climate change on its students. In Hamilton’s Spring 2023 Climate Action Plan, options for environmentally friendly means of heating dorms take the form of ground-source and air-source heat pumps, which are currently installed in 7 buildings on campus. As this expands, Hamilton also needs to explore options for cooling dorms beyond air conditioning, which ultimately if expanded would, and should, still be a temporary solution.

Community Living, then known as Residential Life, installed air conditioners on the first and second floors of Babbitt and Milbank over the summer. This one is in Babbitt Hall. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

Students who lived on campus over the summer bore the worst of this heat, especially regarding the unique climate situation as the hottest summer on record, accompanied by an air quality emergency as a result of the Canadian wildfires. John Hern ‘24 lived on the third floor of Milbank this past summer for approximately a month after the spring semester ended, working on campus until June 11th during the Hamilton College 2023 reunion. Living on the third floor of Milbank, John had no access to air conditioning, and as a result expressed “I think I did have some sleepless nights, just because it was too hot and you couldn’t get it out of there.” This was in reference to a string of days with temperatures in the high 80s during air pollution from wildfires. He then said:

“Without the air conditioning, you can’t get the heat of that building. Your one option is to wait until it is nighttime and hope that it is less than 70 degrees out so that the air outside actually does something, but that doesn’t work when the air itself turns deadly. The forest fires were happening in the middle of that, the air quality didn’t clear up until the day before reunions started, so you had to have your windows closed.”

Milbank Hall, with its air conditioners on display. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

These conditions had an obvious toll on not only his personal comfort but also his ability to work effectively with Alumni Relations. He went on to discuss that all students living in Milbank and Babbitt received an email that they were going to receive air conditioning, as they had promised in May, but that in reality air conditioning had only been installed on the first and second floors of Milbank and Babbitt. Residential Life (now called Community Living) sent a follow-up email, also obtained by Monitor, apologizing to third-floor residents for the prior email being sent to them without any explanation as to why air conditioning had not been installed for them. I reached out to Community Living for comment, and received a response from Tanith Sherman, responding directly to the questions: “Was the initial intent for air conditioning to be installed in third-floor suites common rooms? If so, what stopped that from happening?”

“In an attempt to make common spaces and kitchens more comfortable for summer students, air conditioning units were installed in the common room of each suite on the first and second floors, as those were the floors that we knew would be occupied all summer. While they were not intended to fully cool the buildings, they would help to keep temperatures manageable in areas where students would be cooking. We anticipated being able to house everyone on the 1st and 2nd floors based on previous summer numbers. We ended up with more summer residents than anticipated so we were intentional about assignments. The small number of students who were on the 3rd floor of Milbank were either there short term at the start or end of the summer, or were students who opted to live in a space without air conditioning despite having the option to be on the 1st or 2nd floors. There were no summer residents on the 3rd floor of Babbitt.”

While this explained the reasoning of Residential Life and Facilities in not installing air conditioning on the 3rd floor of Milbank, it ultimately does little justice to the effect that this heat has on student life on campus. It will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future as the climate continues to change and the world continues to grow hotter, and the lives of students and staff will continue to degrade in quality here as a result of it. It raises larger questions, like the inconsistency of dorm quality across campus, and the consideration of student and staff desires encompassing other issues, and even heat as an accessibility issue. These issues, as of now, remain unaddressed, but that is the importance of dialogue and awareness across campus. As a community we have the ability to push for the changes that we want to see, and as for now the best thing that we can do is make them known.

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