LaNada Peppers built a "little closet studio" at home where she can create podcasts instead of in McGill Hall at the University of Montana.

Peppers, who can't access gear she would normally use, also bought a camera, a desk, paper, pencils, and other equipment.

"It's now adding up to thousands of dollars," Peppers said.

The teaching assistant and master's in fine arts student is among the 20 or 25 graduate students in Media Arts who were displaced after the campus closed McGill Hall this semester after detecting high levels of asbestos in surface dust.

Undergraduate students and some 70 faculty and staff also were relocated along with 40 children in a preschool.

Emily Griffin is on track to get a bachelor's in fine arts this May, and she said the closure, which started Jan. 31, is more than just lost time for her and her cohorts in media arts. In an update this week, UM said the building would be back online March 11 "barring additional unforeseen issues."

"It's affecting our senior projects and portfolio projects that we would rely pretty heavily on when looking for careers in this field," Griffin said. "So what I'm not sure people understand — or the university understands — is that this isn't just missing a couple weeks of class.

"This is impacting things that are going to influence our ability to get jobs once we graduate."

In an earlier meeting with Provost Jon Harbor about the closure, Griffin said students asked UM to consider tuition reimbursement.

"We all would be interested in financial compensation from the college for the time that we have missed since we are not getting time-wise or quality-wise the education that we paid for," Griffin said.

UM closed McGill Hall after finding concentrations of asbestos fibers on surfaces as much as 80 times higher than a federal cleanup threshold for residences. The campus also closed and relocated two child care facilities, including the one in McGill.

Asbestos causes cancer and other illnesses when it is airborne, and UM officials and a certified industrial hygienist have said results show asbestos is not present in detectable levels based on air tests. They have stressed surface asbestos does not correlate to a health hazard.

The building closure meant UM moved classrooms to other places on campus along with faculty, staff and students. But Mark Shogren, director of the School of Media Arts, said the closure of McGill showed the educational experience the school has created through the years can't be instantaneously replicated.

And some students losing weeks of education this semester wonder whether health trouble will arise in the future.


UM spokesperson Paula Short said the campus worked as quickly as possible to relocate students and accommodate technological needs. She was not aware of the request for tuition reimbursement and its status was not immediately available Friday.

In a campus email update, vice president of operations Paul Lasiter said contractors have completed cleaning and testing for the second floor of McGill Hall and were working on the first floor. If all went as expected, employees would be allowed to move back into McGill on Friday, March 8, and the building would be "back online" on March 11.

"This has been a difficult and uncertain time for those directly affected, and I apologize for that uncertainty and the stress that it has caused," Lasiter wrote. "I appreciate the patience, care and helpful actions from members of our community as we work diligently on these challenges."

Shogren said the School of Media Arts appreciates the way the School of Journalism opened its doors to media arts. He said some of the technology is close, but not all of it.

Over the years, he said faculty in his program organically prepared physical spaces with the technology and community that graduates and undergraduates need to do their work in McGill Hall. They are filmmakers, digital animators, game designers, and more.

"The digital revolution allowed us to build now what we have on this campus," Shogren said. "What we learned is it's not something that's mobile."

Game design is one focus of Media Arts, and the closure means, for example, a new gaming instructor is temporarily hamstrung in pushing the program in that direction. That effort is an attractant to students, Shogren said, but delivering a course on interactive gaming under the circumstances is another story.

"The narrative has been, 'We provided spaces for these people to continue doing what they're doing,'" Shogren said. "And that's not exactly true. … You cannot reproduce the experiences we are offering them in McGill Hall."

Griffin agreed. She is taking a 3D animation class with just six or seven students, and she said the students and faculty use an expensive software program that requires a lot of processing power. Students eventually were moved to a new classroom, but she said they have had to share computers.

"We are no longer doing the senior project that we were going to be working on," Griffin said. "We don't have the time and don't have the resources, and we won't for another week or so."

In a temporary classroom in Anderson Hall, several undergraduates in media arts said they understand the biggest concern is the risk to children who were in the preschool. But they also lamented the educational consequences, like lost class periods and having to learn about equipment through lectures instead of hands-on experience.

Anika Fritz, a junior, said she isn't concerned about the health risks to herself given the results of the air samples, and she appreciates UM officials seeking to adhere to federal cleanup standards. But she said her mom, in Kalispell, has been worried and is frustrated with the lack of information from UM.

"It's a two-hour-away gap, but she's in the dark about everything," Fritz said.

Peppers may spend more of her own money to buy lights and filming gear to wrap up her projects. She said she sympathizes with students who are on the brink of graduation and experienced setbacks because of the closure.

"Keeping up morale to continue with all our projects is very, very hard when we don't have a place centralized to all of our work," Peppers said.

Griffin is wondering if she should really have to foot the bill on the student loan she took out to pay for the semester, and the interest. If there were points in time when the air in McGill was unsafe to breathe as asbestos released, she wonders if she was in proximity.

"It's not just these couple of weeks that McGill is closed that this is affecting. This is going to affect us for years to come in a variety of ways," Griffin said.

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