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MIT’s residences are secure, with room for improvement

Residential Hall Security Review Committee releases final report
Baker House
Baker House
Photo: Tony Luong

MIT's graduate and undergraduate residences are fundamentally secure, but further study with assistance from professional security consultants will help identify house-specific security improvements throughout the system, according to a report released this week by Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo.

The Residential Hall Security Review Committee, convened in December in response to several security-related incidents in the dormitories, submitted the report to summarize its review of and recommendations for security in the MIT housing system.

The report's general findings are:
  • The residential system is generally secure;
  • The most significant deficiencies to be addressed pertain to training and management, rather than physical arrangements of personnel;
  • A one-size-fits-all security approach is not practical for MIT's residential system;
  • Community support and buy-in are the most important factors for the success of any security scheme enacted in the dormitories.
"Our dorms are secure places that are safe for residents," says committee co-chair Charles Stewart, the McCormick Hall housemaster and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science. "Nonetheless, it bears taking a close look to make sure that we close any gaps and cover any inefficiencies."

The report also recommends that each house develop a detailed security plan tailored for its particular community and suggests "some well-targeted physical improvements" to enhance safety, including installing front desks in buildings that do not have them.

"Since our dorms vary significantly in culture, physical structure and location, our recommendations on dorm security specifically avoid a one-size-fits-all approach," says committee member and Dormitory Council President Ellen McIsaac, a senior. "In order to respect the needs of individual communities while improving overall security in the dorms, we have recommended that dorms work to create individualized security plans, so that they can ensure that a minimum standard of security is being met, but that this is done in a way that works for their community."
Broad outreach

The Security Committee did an exemplary job of involving the community to find solutions that are right for MIT's student residences, say the committee's co-chairs. "We made sure we did it the MIT way," says John DiFava, the committee's co-chair and director of MIT Facility Operations and Security. "We had a good cross section, including students, that represented the campus well."

To gather information, the Security Committee toured four representative houses, reviewed written policies for residential staff, including desk workers, desk captains, house managers and Nightwatch, and analyzed current benchmarking data for peer and neighboring universities. The members also met with a broad array of stakeholders, from the director of housing, housemasters and house managers to front-desk workers, dorm officers and Graduate Resident Tutors (GRTs).

DiFava and Stewart lauded the contributions of a private security consultant on the committee. "Personally, I learned the value of having that kind of insider's observations about how dorms fare in different kinds of security schemes," Stewart says.

"I've been in the police business 30 years, but there's a difference between policing and security," DiFava adds. "I found his perspective very helpful."

Balancing general recommendations with tailored solutions

The report also states that any changes or enhancements to security must be tailored to individual communities. Different community cultures, whether from building to building or between graduate and undergraduate populations, make a single approach difficult to envision at MIT, say Stewart and DiFava.

In addition, the residential system includes a wide variety of structures, ranging from Tang, a high-rise with a single primary entrance, to East Campus, which has two separate buildings and multiple entryways. "We clearly recognized that each hall is different. A one-size-fits-all or boilerplate approach just would not work," DiFava says. "You would have one dorm that was really secure and another that has lots of holes."

Nonetheless, the report does make some general recommendations to improve overall security. Among the recommendations are:
  • All houses should have a staffed front desk;
  • Some existing front desks should be altered to improve security;
  • Front desk staff should receive enhanced training to elevate the role of security in their jobs and to ensure consistency from house to house;
  • MIT should engage a professional security consulting firm to assist each house in developing its security plan.
The report also recommends that each house evaluate secondary entrances for the installation of better alarms and consider whether security cameras are appropriate and worthwhile additions to the building's systems.

Next steps for security

Now that the committee has submitted its report, Colombo, Senior Associate Dean for Student Life Henry Humphreys and staff in Residential Life will review the recommendations and develop a plan for action.

Stewart emphasizes that the report contains recommendations for future study, not strict instructions for MIT or any particular residence. And, he notes, house communities will be crucial to any future improvements.

"The biggest asset that you have are the people in the building," he says.

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