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Broken elevators at Wayne State University hold students back from getting to classes

Old Main elevator on Warren Ave. entrance, which hasn’t worked for over a year. Photo by Sarah Kominek.

Elevators on Wayne State University’s campus have worked intermittently for years, faculty and students say. This semester it’s become a boundary for students who are unable to climb stairs to get to class. 

On the day of her final in Kelly Donnellan’s film class, in the fall semester of 2018, Mary Sier a media arts junior at WSU, got on the elevator in Old Main to get to her classroom on the fourth floor. At about the time the doors should have been opening, Sier said, the elevator suddenly shook and dropped. 

“It was stuck in between the third and fourth floor,” she said. “I got in the elevator, it dropped someone else off on the third floor and then as I went up, I felt everything shake. Like what I would imagine an earthquake to feel like. It was horrifying. I instantly knew I was stuck.”

20-year-old Sier was stuck in the elevator for almost an hour, she said. 

“I actually FaceTimed a girl that was in the class, just to kind of keep me calm,” Sier said. “She talked to me through the doors sort of.

Sier said engineers had to get a “giant magnet to pull the elevator up the floor to get into it. The process took forever.”

“I kind of accepted the fact that I didn’t know if I would get to my final,”  she said. “At that point they had to start the class. I had kept ringing the alert button, and it makes that loud noise. And a lot of my classmates were gathering around the elevator to figure out what was going on.”

“Once I actually got on the phone with the police, they knew exactly what was going on,” she said. “They knew exactly what elevator. It was almost like they were expecting me to call. Clearly they get that call a lot”

Sier was able to present her final project at the end of class, she said. 

“I felt bad because I disrupted the class,” she said. 

A sign posted Aug. 30, 2019 on Old Main’s eastern facing doors on Warren Ave. on WSU’s campus. Photo by Sarah Kominek.

“I’m lucky and I have two working legs and I could go up the stairs, but that’s not the situation for everyone,” Sier said. “And especially in Old Main, the stairs are really steep and narrow and just hard to climb.”

In the fall semester of 2019, Sier’s professor, Donnellan, an associate professor of media arts and studies at WSU  said one of her students didn’t show up during the first week of classes.

“He didn’t come to class because the elevator was broken, he missed the first two classes,” she said.

 When Donnellan contacted the student to make sure everything was okay, because she would need to acknowledge his participation for financial aid. The student told her that he couldn’t attend her class because it was on the fourth floor, and he is not medically allowed to ascend stairs. 

“He came to class and told me the reason and I knew we had a problem,” she said.

One of the front elevators in Old Main near the Warren Ave. entrance, that reaches the fourth floor, where Donnellan’s media classes are held, hasn’t been working for over a year, she said. The other front elevator has worked only intermittently.

The Hancock entrance to Old Main on WSU’s campus. Photo by Sarah Kominek

A third elevator, located at a side entrance on Hancock St. only rises to the third floor, with a double set of stairs leading to the fourth-floor studios.

“I showed him the alternate route on Hancock,” Donnellan said, “but each flight of stairs in Old Main is equal to two flights of stairs. He had to climb two flights of stairs to attend class, and he’s not supposed to.”

Donnellan made “barrier reports” to WSU Accessibility every time she noticed the elevators were out this semester, she said, which after the first week of classes occurred again on Sept. 10 and 25.

She said the department told her “it’s on our radar.”

“Frankly, when the elevators are broken and they don’t work, it’s illegal,” Donnellan said. “It’s an Americans with Disabilities Act violation … If it’s on your radar, fix the elevator.”

Donnellan said members of the Wayne State administration asked in meeting about the issue how much it would cost for the fourth-floor media arts studios to move to another building. 

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “You’re talking servers, desktop computers, editing space equipment, personnel and tons of gear that has to go up and down the stairs. It would be starting at $500,000. Just fix the one elevator.”

Interactive Map of WSU Elevator events

Hayg Oshagan, information officer of the CFPCA American Association of University Professors, and communications studies professor at WSU said the issue isn’t just in CFPCA buildings, but all over campus.

“The elevators have been an issue for at least three years,” he said. “But I think longer in some places.”

Oshagan called it a “deferred management issue:”

“When problems are arising instead of taking care of it, it just seems to be put off,” he said. 

The issue came to his attention when Old Main began experiencing elevator breakdowns. 

“There were many times when neither elevator on that side of the street was working,” Oshagan said. “People had to walk up and down four flights of stairs, sometimes with heavy equipment, cameras and sound equipment.”

“Some of our faculty and students have health issues,” he said. “It has become a really difficult, unfair and potentially dangerous situation.” 

Signs have been posted on every floor near Old Main’s elevators and entrances since the beginning of the fall 2019 semester, and remain today. Photo by Sarah Kominek.

Ashley Flintoff, director of planning and space management at WSU said “a number of things” have been done to address the issue of broken elevators on campus, including a new “condition assessment project,” which began this month.

“A contractor will do a full analysis of every elevator on campus and give us a full report to help us prioritize repairs, replacements and modernizations,” Flintoff said. “Facilities has been working on the elevator issues for several years. It’s one of those perfect storms, where several of the elevators have gone down at the same time and the issue in the industry have been compounding as facilities across the country, all of their elevators are failing at the same time.”

“The age of our buildings ranges from 1895 to 2019, so you have elevators that are brand new or 50 years old and older,” she said. “It wasn’t just that we stopped working on stuff.”

Faculty concerns about accessibility were brought to Oshagan’s attention at the end of September, and he, along with the union, filed a grievance on Oct. 29. 

Nick LaFramboise, a recent graduate of WSU’s computer science bachelor’s program, got stuck in elevators twice in his 7 years at the university.

The first time he got stuck in 2014, LaFramboise was on his way to his car on the sixth floor of Structure 2 to drive home with his then girlfriend, he said.

“It kind of just fizzled out,” he said. “It’s a pretty slow elevator. I kind of thought we were at the floor but it was a little quick.”

“We were in there for so long because I didn’t have reception and her phone was dead,” LaFramboise said. “I had to wait until I got a bar and I called the non-emergency number for the WSU police. I just kept trying over and over and over.”

After about 30 minutes, LaFramboise said, the call went through.

“I said ‘I’m stuck in Structure 2 in the elevator!’ And then I heard ‘Wha-‘ and then it turned off so I hoped they got the message,” he said. 

The display showing the floor number wasn’t working, LaFrambois said, so he wasn’t sure what floor he was on. 

The police eventually restarted the elevator and he and his girlfriend went home, but LaFramboise didn’t expect to get stuck again in his own dorm in the middle of the night years later.

Working as a Resident Assistant at the University Tower dorm on Cass Ave., at about 3 A.M. in 2018, LaFramboise responded to a student locked out of their apartment, he said. On the way up to the fifth floor, the elevator opened at levels two and three, but no one was waiting for it.

“I thought that was odd,” he said. “Then it went up to four and the doors wouldn’t open and none of the buttons would light up.”

“We’ve had that elevator go down so many times,” LaFramboise said. “Sometimes it would get fixed, sometimes it wouldn’t.”

Steven Pecic, a university information officer at WSU, said every elevator on campus is “touched” by a professional technician monthly. 

“Their job is to make sure the basic preventative maintenance items are addressed,” Pecic said. “Then they respond to calls, whether it’s a system down. Heaven forbid there’s an entrapment.”

“Eight out of ten calls are a result of doors being kicked,” Pecic said. “Students or somebody, a rider has kicked the doors and essentially put the elevator out of service, that could be impatience or panic.”

“We get hundreds of calls and eight out of ten of them are related to door issues,” Pecic said.

Neither LaFramboise or Sier touched the doors when they were stuck in the elevators, they said.

“I didn’t want to touch it,” LaFramboise said. “I didn’t know how far we were suspended in the air.”

Donnellan said, she cares about her students’ ability to get to their classes.

“It’s a simple problem we can fix,” she said. “I’ve had to give students bus money, I’ve bought textbooks and put them on reserve in the library. I’ve been to college three times, I know what it’s like to be a broke college student. Getting to class shouldn’t be the issue that keeps them from their education.”

Posted by Sarah Jack (Kominek) on December 17, 2019

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