Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Every Swarthmore student is intimately acquainted with the experience of tearing through a heavy backpack late at night in search of his or her key. Propping open the main door to the dorm is a common solution, especially when guests are expected from other buildings.
A universal access system would eliminate the need for keys, and instead students would be issued a card that would give them access to their dorm.
According to Security on Campus, Inc., a non-profit website run by the Clery family and linked to the Clery Act, “Card access systems are far superior to standard metal key and lock systems. Card access enables immediate lock changes when keys are lost, stolen, or when housing assignments change.”
In the case of Swarthmore, a proximity system would be most useful and is already in use in some areas on campus, such as the Computer Science labs, the Language Resource Center, and the Writing Center. Mary Hasbrouck, the Technology Coordinator for Facilities and Services, added, “All student and employee ID cards made since August 2007 contain a prox chip, so are capable of working with this access system”. Most systems also include “a historical log for each door reader indicating who entered the space and when,” says Owen Redgrave, Director of Public Safety.
The universal access system would not only require that the school retrofit all of the dorm doors, many of which are old and uniquely shaped, but would also demand a staff increase and alarm system on the doors. In 2002, an inquiry into the question of a tri-college one-card system produced an estimate of over a million dollars, according to Hasbrouck. She adds, “Ongoing costs included an annual service contract (estimated at $134,000), and staffing increase to run the system and respond promptly to “propped door” alerts from the system.”
It is widely agreed that the tremendous cost of the system is the major factor keeping the plan from being implemented. Associate Dean for Student Life, Myrt Westphal, explained that a universal access system was considered when the Science Center was built, but the cost was so great that the administration felt that there “might be things that would be better to serve the college community”.
The renewed interest on the system has been sparked by the wishes of a Student Experience group that met last year, as well as the attempted assault that occurred recently in Willets. James Larimore, Dean of Students, explains, “This has been an ongoing topic of interest as we are always looking for way to improve campus safety and security. The recent incident at Willets provided a reminder, though, about how important it is to encourage students and other of us to be vigilant in keeping doors and windows locked, and in being alert to the presence of people who should not be in the dorms.”
Despite the advantages, a universal access system would not solve all safety and convenience issues relating to dorm keys. Hasbrouck says, “I have heard students say that they want a card system because it would give them access to ALL the dorms. This is not necessarily true. It’s a Dean’s Office policy that only the residents of a dorm should have access to that dorm. Adding a card system would not change that, as long as the Dean’s Office policy remains the same.” Furthermore, although electronic access cards can be easily reprogrammed in the case of loss or theft, Dean Westphal points out, “What if somebody had picked up a universal card, and somebody didn’t know it was missing or neglected to report that it was missing? Then that person has access to all of our buildings.”
As of now, the traditional approach is still the best. Dean Larimore says, “I think we each ought to be willing to endure some personal inconveniences, like locking doors and windows or calling friends to ask them to let us into their buildings, in order to make them safer for all students.”
Dean Westphal agrees, adding, “I live in Swarthmore and I feel pretty safe here, but my safety doesn’t depend on the decision of several hundred other people .” Locking doors and windows, ensuring doors are not propped and being aware of our surroundings is common sense, but something about which students have become lax. In the meantime, minor technological enhancements are not out of the question, “that could even be done now,” says Dean Westphal, “alarm all the doors and if it was open longer than a certain time then the alarm would go off”.
Hasbrouck says, “There are many basic low-tech practices… that would improve safety in the dorms- in fact, if you add a card access system, but still leave the ground level windows unlocked, and prop doors open for a pizza delivery, you’re no safer than you were without card access. Card access can certainly be more convenient than fishing for keys, but if that’s all we’d gain from it, then a million dollar price tag (plus ongoing costs and staff numbers) is pretty steep”.