Achieving Safer Facilities with Access Technology

In the Kirby Student Center at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, students sometimes accidentally locked themselves out of their student organization rooms. Before the center underwent renovation, these rooms still required keys to be checked out from the welcome desk. If the welcome desk was closed, there were instances in which students would push on the ceiling panels to see if they could crawl up and into the rooms. 

Jeni Eltink, director of the center, said she “had an interesting conversation with the student organizations” when this was discovered.  

Since moving to a card access system, Eltink said they “haven’t had a situation in the past few years where there’s been something missing from the office and we needed to know who was the last person to key in.”  

A 2017 survey conducted by Campus Safety found that 65% of higher education respondents found tracking and managing keys to be somewhat to extremely challenging. The same survey reported that 35% of higher education institutions upgraded or adopted new card and/or biometric access control systems in the past two years.  

Facilities on college campuses are utilizing various technologies and strategies to ensure their student centers remain safe environments for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. These include keycard access systems, security cameras, partnering with campus or local police, and more.  

Whether it is keeping track of keys or keycards, installing new technology into an older building, or planning the security for a new facility, each facility has its own needs when it comes to developing a security strategy.

University of Minnesota–Duluth 

The Kirby Student Center renovation at the University of Minnesota–Duluth was completed in 2015. Along with the renovation came the idea to switch from keys to cards for conference rooms and student organization offices.  

“When we did renovate in 2015 we decided to go to card access,” Eltink said. “It felt more secure. … [For example,] if a card gets lost you can turn it off, but when a key gets lost that’s a whole kind of different deal.”  

Access TechnologyAnother way it feels more secure, for Eltink, is that students can access their student organization rooms after business hours. Although the center’s business hours during the academic year are 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., the building never really closes because it is connected with other buildings and sometimes people stay in the center after-hours for events. The center staff wanted students to be able to have access whenever they needed it and not be dependent on whether the welcome desk was open.  

“We used to have situations under the old system where … a student organization would lock themselves out of their office and then if the welcome desk was closed there was nothing they could do about that,” Eltink said.  

There are four large student organization offices on the first floor of the center. When moving to keycard access, Eltink and others had conversations with the student organizations to decide how many keycards each organization could have.  

“The biggest conversations became who in each organization gets access,” Eltink said. “Because we didn’t want all 65 members of student government to have access. There’s 450 students who belong to greek life. So, we had lots of conversations with the student organizations about what we thought made sense to them.” 

The newspaper, the UMD Statesman, has four. Each member of the executive board for fraternal life has a card, and each programming board member has a card because there are only 10 students. Arranging for access and managing access is headed by the center’s operations manager.  

“[Keycards] are specific to each organization,” Eltink said. “My keycard will get me in anywhere.”  

Other places on campus also use keycards. When the idea of installing keycards was brought to Facilities Management the staff already knew the different available products. University electricians installed the devices and maintain them.  

“[The devices] are hardwired and in an emergency, in a loss of power, they still work,” Eltink said. “They’re wired into the emergency power for our building. If something were to happen and they totally were to lose power, the default
is unlocked.”  

Although the student organizations within the Kirby Student Center have moved to card access, the name Key Shop remains for where students need to arrange for access.  

Overall, Eltink said the move to keycards has been “really good” for the center.  

University of California–Berkeley 

Construction on the Student Union at the University of California–Berkeley began in 2012 and finished in the 2015. The organization is a combination of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, Eshleman Hall, and Lower Sproul Plaza. Out of the buildings that make up the Student Union, Eshleman Hall is the only one that remains open 24/7.  

Access Technology

“Overall, I’m happy with the level of security right now,” said Suzi Halpin, director of event and facilities operations. “We could always get better.”  

Previously, students would stay in Eshleman overnight, but they felt unsafe walking home at 2 or 3 a.m. Now, students leave at midnight and officers stay in the building from midnight to 6 a.m. Before the student building manager leaves for the day, they walk through the building with a communications training officer. 

 “They’ll go into rooms and check IDs,” Halpin said. “If you don’t have access, they’ll ask you to leave.” 

Halpin was involved in the discussion regarding who gets access to where within the newly renovated buildings.  

“That was the decision that took the most effort on our part—who gets access to what parts of each building and how you group those people together,” Halpin said. “Those conversations probably took two or three months.”  

The few stakeholders responsible for who gets access into the building are the operations team, police department, and the student government. The public and others who want access have to fill out a form online that is then submitted to the operations team. Those who are approved are then added to a spreadsheet the campus police department keeps updated. 

“For the student groups, we just process who gets access,” Halpin said. “We don’t make decisions about which students get access because we don’t have that knowledge base. The student government approves who gets access.” 

One of the problems those who run the building have experienced is transients sleeping on the furniture. There have been two instances of bed bugs in which the entire building had to be shut down for a short period of time for cleaning.  

“Transients … hide in the building and they call it their home,” Halpin said. “We had to get police involved so we could ask them to leave in a proper way.” 

Those who run the building also ran into trouble in February of this year when protests erupted on the campus before a planned appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart writer.  

“We had to shut the building down,” Halpin said. “We have 19 entrances into the buildings. We could not provide a safe environment so we had to lock down the buildings during the protests. We had over 200 police officers at the protest.” 

Since opening, the few changes that have been made to building security include adding additional key access points, making sure certain doors stay locked no matter what, and adding a communications training officer overnight. 

“I think it’s very secure,” Halpin said. “There’s a fine balance between being a very secure building and making sure it’s a space where the community feels safe, where they feel welcomed.” 

University of Tennessee–Knoxville  

The Student Union at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville is currently in Phase II of renovation. Funded through existing student and user fees, the completed facility will be 50% larger than the previous University Center. Phase I opened in June 2015 and includes a space for the Center for Career Development, offices, extensive dining and seating, and a new book and technology store.  

Alison Ward, acting associate director, said the Student Union department has been adjusting operations for some of the foreseeable challenges that come along with construction.  

“Phase I relies considerably on our retail operations to address daily safety issues as the Student Union department has no office space in [Phase I],” Ward said. “All our external doors and the majority of our internal locks, except for office spaces, are automatic. We also have over 50 cameras in [Phase I] that send footage to a cloud server at an offsite location.”  

Currently, closing procedures include performing a full building walkthrough to ensure automatic doors are engaged, locking doors that require keys, and clearing general public areas of visitors. The Student Union staff locks doors through Gallagher Command software and sets the times for access. 

The central alarm staff, part of the campus police department, are responsible solely for alarm monitoring. This includes fire alarms, access, magnetic locks, motion sensors, elevator alarms, and panic alarms. Those who want to request access fill out a form online that then goes to Ward. Identification cards used at the university also act as proximity cards. This technology was already being used on campus with residence halls, so installing them during the union renovation was “easy,” Ward said.  

“The Student Union approves access for proximity cards and keys,” Ward said. “At this time, departments complete an online request for proximity access via Central Alarm … and key requests via Lock and Key, a part of our facilities division. An email is automatically sent to the Student Union department approver, which for the time is me, as acting associate director. I approve or deny the request.”  

Student staff who work as building managers perform walkthroughs on weekends and weeknights in the absence of the evening building manager.  

“They have less proximity card access than exempt staff but more than the rest of our building occupants,” Ward said. “Depending on the issue, student building managers will let us know by text if there is an issue. Campus police respond when called to an immediate issue or if an alarm is activated.”  

Some parts of the completed Phase I are open 24 hours to ensure ADA compliance with access to ATMs. When Phase II is finished the building will no longer have to be open 24 hours. 

“There are still discussions taking place about the 24-hour thing; but regardless, the entire facility will have a phased closing every night,” Ward said.  

Georgia Southern University 

In 2013, Georgia Southern University installed an IRIS Camera System in its residential dining facilities. Since then, the university has expanded the system to the recreation center. The idea behind moving to the hands-free entry method was to allow students to enter in a more efficient manner and allow self-service. It could also be more hygenic. 

Access Technology“A biometric is always going to identify who a person is,” said Richard Wynn, director of the Eagle Card program. “So, I wanted to see if I could find a biometric technology that would work with our students.”

While researching different technologies, Wynn came across finger scanners, hand scanners, and retina scanners before settling on an iris scanner.  

“I found iris scanners, which just take a picture of your eye,” Wynn said. “I’d seen a system that was used in airports in Europe. It was incredibly expensive, which we definitely weren’t going to be able to do. And then I was at one of our national conferences, the National Association of Campus Card Services, and one of the vendors had an iris scanner there he was demonstrating.” 

Wynn took a sample, set up a test system, and then decided to move forward with iris scanners. The cameras are from Iris ID and the university uses the iCam 7000. To make sure each student was in the system, enrolling in the IRIS Camera System was made part of ID issuance during student orientation.  

There has been a lot of recent debate over the cost-benefit of biometric technology as it is mostly unregulated. Some worry about identity theft because while a passcode can be changed or an ID card replaced, fingerprints and facial features cannot be. Proponents argue that actual fingerprints or iris scans are not stored, only the authentication patterns they are converted into, as is the case for Georgia Southern’s system.   

“I was concerned, initially, when we did it because I thought we were going to get a pushback,” Wynn said. “The first orientation season we had about 3,500 students come through. Out of those, only one student said they didn’t want to enroll in the system.”  

There is a slight learning curve to iris scanning, Wynn said. For him, since he’s familiar and comfortable with the scanner, it takes about one second.  

“Some students who aren’t so comfortable with it, it can take three or four seconds,” Wynn said. “It’s still a lot faster than reaching into your pocket, pulling out your card, handing it to someone, and then waiting for them to hand it back.”  

The system worked so well that the student activities office contacted Wynn about installing the system in the recreation center. In 2015, the IRIS Camera System was installed and now 7,000 to 8,000 students use the system per week. 

“They really like it because when you go do a workout or play basketball where are you going to carry your card?” Wynn said. “They find it much more convenient.” 

Since being installed, the IRIS Camera System had about 3 million entries at the end of the 2016–17 academic year. A problem Wynn ran into is how many templates the iris scanners can hold. When someone is enrolled into the system it makes a digitally photographed iris pattern of their eyes. That pattern is stored in the server as a template. When a user uses a camera at a location, the iris camera system compares their pattern to all others on the server for verification. The IRIS Camera System initially bought could only hold 20,000 templates. There are a little over 20,000 students at Georgia Southern University. 

“We contacted the company and they made some changes in order to allow the camera to hold more images,” Wynn said. “What I want to do is keep about five years of our student and staff population in the server because so many students will be with us for more than four years. And then what we’ll do is cull out the ones that haven’t been used in five years.” 

Wynn feels biometrics will be used more widely in the future. On campus, the ratio is three to one; out of every three students, only one will use their card. He also would like to see the system expand to other areas on campus, such as the shooting range and administration buildings. 

“As long as we have a strong biometric system and a sensor that works seamlessly, I think that’s the direction things will start to go,” Wynn said.  


Of the nearly 1,200 hospital, school and university, law enforcement, and emergency management professionals that participated in Campus Safety’s 2017 Access Control Survey, “less than half (44%) of college and university respondents rate their access control technology, locks, and door hardware coverage as good or excellent.” 

With new technologies and a myriad of available systems for facilities to use, there is no one answer to providing the best security. A brand new building will have different needs than a recently renovated one. At each institution, the primary goal is to provide the greatest amount of security to students, staff, faculty, and visitors. By investigating options and partnering with other campus departments such as facilities, residence life, recreation, and police, many opportunities exist to select the best access control system and procedures for the campus community. 

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