BLOOMINGTON — A recent court filing alleges Indiana University engaged in a misleading and deceptive public relations campaign to downplay the severity of a mold outbreak.
The lawsuit, filed late last month in Monroe Circuit Court 6, cites emails between university officials as evidence IU knowingly misrepresented the cause of the outbreak and sought to influence what medical providers listed as possible causes of ailments. A university spokesman disputed the claims and said excerpts from emails cited in the court filing were taken out of context.
The plaintiffs, students who lived in dorms affected by mold last school year, are seeking class status through Monroe Circuit Court 6. They allege the university knew about mold issues in residence halls for years before the 2018-19 school year, but initially blamed the recent outbreak on the weather. The court filing included the following excerpt of an email attributed to an unnamed university official:
“I just saw on the web page that we do suggest that mold was due to extra heat and humidity this year. I strongly suggest we take down that statement immediately. The first rule of crisis communication is to apologize and take the blame — do not try to deflect.”
The court filing also included a discussion between IU officials about what university health center employees should tell students about the cause of their allergies. When the source of those allergies are unknown, a provider may list mold as one of the many triggers, according to an email from Peter Grogg, executive director of the IU Health Center, to David O’Guinn, vice provost for student affairs and dean of students. The email continued:
“It is impossible for us to know if mold exists in the residence halls, so it’s unlikely that our providers would point to mold as the sole trigger. Anyway, although Pat (Connor, executive director of RPS) admits that there is mold in some of the residence halls, he has asked that we stop saying to patients that his/her (symptoms) may be triggered by that very same mold.”
Chuck Carney, IU spokesman, said in a statement the allegation in the court filing is based on a single email in a larger thread of communication.
“We have revisited this with the IU Student Health Center’s executive director and medical director,” Carney said in the statement. “They are emphatic that the doctors and health professionals there have never been pressured to downplay health effects from mold or to make any specific diagnosis.”
Carney also said university officials never misrepresented the cause of the mold and have “vigilantly looked for a variety of potential causes.”
IU is planning a $56 million renovation of Foster and McNutt residence halls this summer to address the ongoing mold problem. The residence halls were originally scheduled for renovation in phases during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.
Despite efforts to clean up the mold in those residence halls, the university has been unable to eliminate it. The only way to solve the problem is a full-scale renovation, said Lauren Robel, provost of the Bloomington campus, at a meeting in December.
The university began receiving reports of mold from students in September. There were so many reports, IU set up an “incident management center” in October.
During his state of the university address in October, IU President Michael McRobbie apologized for the situation and announced a plan to reimburse students for expenses related to mold. He also asked instructors to make special accommodations when necessary. Some students felt the university wasn’t doing enough and filed a lawsuit against the IU Board of Trustees.