Occidental had contemplated installing air conditioning systems in the residence halls that lack them since at least 2009. In March 2018, the college decided to move forward with the plan to install air conditioning in Stearns Hall. However, in July 2018, Dean of Students Rob Flot announced the college postponed those plans in Stearns. In April 2019, Flot announced the college had withdrawn from any plans to install air conditioning, citing competing funding needs such as building repairs and financial aid, which the college prioritized instead. In line with 2019’s withdrawal decision, Amos Himmelstein, vice president and chief operating officer for finance, planning and operations, said the college currently does not have plans to install air conditioning.
Occidental has 13 residence halls that house a total of 1,742 students. Of these halls, six do not have air conditioning in rooms — Chilcott, Stewart-Cleland, E. Norris, Stearns, Haines and Pauley. A total of 808 students live in these non-air-conditioned halls. For comparison, 11 of Pomona College’s 16 residence halls and 4 of Claremont McKenna College’s 14 residence halls do not have air conditioning, according to the Claremont Colleges’ newspaper The Student Life.
In April 2019, Himmelstein said it would cost the college $2.5 to $3 million to install air conditioning in Stearns Hall alone. However, Himmelstein recently said this cost has increased dramatically since then, possibly due to a combination of factors such as the pandemic, inflation or supply chain issues.
“We revisited the numbers, we look at this each year, and we’re now looking at about $4 million dollars per building; we’re looking at $20 million to $25 million for all the dorms,” Himmelstein said. “Also, the more we look at it, the more we engineer it, the more we find other issues that arise.”
If the college chooses to fully furnish even one residence hall with air conditioning, the approximately $4 million expense would use up most of the college account designated for facilities renewal and replacement, according to Himmelstein.
“[Installing air conditioning] would wipe out our entire budget line in one year. This summer we’re doing some work on E. Norris on the electricity and some of the cabinetry, we’re doing work on the existing HVAC for the academic commons,” Himmelstein said. “[Installing air conditioning] means we would do nothing else on campus for that year. I just don’t see that happening.”
Robert Boeke (sophomore), a resident of Norris Blue, said although it is annoying to live without air conditioning, he understands why the college uses this money on important needs like financial aid.
“It’s not great, especially having to walk up the hill to Norris and you’re all hot, and you have to go to your room,” Boeke said. “[But] I think everyone would agree that it’s better to be slightly uncomfortable in the heat than people not being able to come to the school because students want AC.”
Isabella Flad (sophomore), a resident of Chilcott, said via email that the building is partly shaded by the Weingart Center for the Liberal Arts, so it does not feel too hot, but she said she still would prefer the college to install air conditioning.
“I think installing AC should be a priority,” Flad said via email. “It’s weird that some people are paying $80,000 a year to be uncomfortable in their living space!”
Himmelstein said the funding for air conditioning could come externally, potentially from a donor, but there are not many people willing to designate millions of dollars to be spent on air conditioning.
“For instance, Cannon Plaza that’s being built right now, [at] the old pool, [the money is] coming from donor funds. Those are not from the Facilites budget,” Himmelstein said. “It would be great if we found a wealthy individual who said, ‘Here’s $4 million dollars.’ We’ll put the AC unit in their name.”
Isaiah Thomas, director of residential education & housing services (REHS), said via email that REHS works with Facilities Management to provide air conditioning units for residence hall common rooms during the initial periods of the fall semester around September, when the weather tends to be the hottest in the year.
Boeke and Flad have also found ways to stay cool. Boeke said he and his roommate would open the window and sometimes the door to let air conditioning from the Norris common room slip in. Flad said she has a tower fan and her room is not under direct sunlight, making the heat manageable.
According to Himmelstein, the college simply does not have the resources to address every possible need.
“[We need] resources to make it work,” Himmelstein said. “And there are so many competing needs for the same resources.”