Opinion guest column

Student security proposals disregarded by DSL, HRS

EC residents’ voices rejected, despite agreement with DSL and HRS to collaborate on a security solution

The Division of Student Life (DSL) and Housing and Residential Services (HRS) recently decided to overhaul the security of East Campus. The plan they designed rejected six months of collaborative work and incorporated minimal student contribution. This is not an acceptable model for student-administration relations.

In Fall 2019, after multiple intruder incidents that left residents feeling unsafe, EC’s Head of House Sandy Alexandre argued that the dorm needed to expand its security measures. We came together as a dorm and worked on developing a variety of plans. The security of East Campus was then limited to tap access pads on the six entrances to the dorm and internal tap pads on the first floor entrances. We understood that to expand our security, we would need to work with administrators in DSL and HRS, so the House Team and dorm leadership met with them several times, and we invited them to a HouseComm (our dorm government meeting) to hear feedback on our ideas and listen to their suggestions.

At that meeting, they pointed out ideas that would violate fire safety code or MIT policy, explained the logistics behind why they preferred some technologies over others, and listed the varieties of guest access lists that other dorms have adopted. Their repeated position was that HRS would support East Campus in devising a security system to suit our needs.

Late that Fall, EC residents voted on the security measures that DSL and HRS agreed were possible. While all of the measures received a majority of votes, none of them achieved the two-thirds majority the EC constitution requires for referendums. The most popular measure, to place student ID tap pads on most stairwell entrances to each floor, only narrowly failed with 65.4% of the vote.

In the interim period after the vote, the number of intruder incidents escalated. Many students expressed anxiety and discomfort, and some halls independently decided to request tap pads for their floor entrances. Over IAP, while the dorm waited for action on these requests, our Head of House made the unilateral decision to push through the most popular measure. The decision prompted discussion with EC about the powers of the Head of House and the ways in which we could improve our voting processes. It was important to many EC residents that the agency of the dorm government was respected, and we wanted all of the dorm’s leadership — the House Team, elected government, and student advocates — to be able to focus on working together. The security measures themselves were accepted, and EC anticipated the administration moving forward with their implementation.

It was with this decision in mind that in mid-February HRS was invited to tour EC. The stated purpose of the tour was to assess EC’s current security, determine how best to execute the tap pad solution, and, if necessary, determine the small alterations required to make the idea viable. After the tour, HRS promised to get back to EC with their recommendations and an action plan. East Campus waited for these updates — for any action on an increasingly tense security problem — for more than a month. Many students felt unsafe. Only in mid-March, shortly before the pandemic-related chaos, did DSL and HRS reach out to EC Exec and the House Team to schedule a meeting. They then explained that they had decided to implement an entirely different security plan.

Up to this point, we believed we were collaboratively developing a security system that would make EC residents feel comfortable in their home and would address the urgent needs of our building, and we believed that the conclusion of this process would be a solution we could all be invested in.

Instead, DSL and HRS announced that EC would have cameras on all entrances and exits (including cameras watching street-side first floor windows) and an Allied Universal (AU) security desk in our main lounge, Talbot. At this time, they have no intention to implement EC’s requests, even in conjunction with their plan.

Their new plan is highly unpopular among EC residents: only 28% of residents supported installing cameras in a straw poll in Fall 2019, and nine out of ten halls voted against sending the idea to a dorm-wide referendum later that fall. All ten halls voted unanimously against an AU desk in EC at a Spring HouseComm.

In conversations since, DSL and HRS have not adequately justified the rationale behind rejecting all prior student input and instituting a new plan that has very little student support. We have repeatedly asked for and been promised data about the efficacy of this security system. That data has not materialized, and it is important to the EC community that we are able to see that this system works.

Many EC residents remain concerned that the new plan will not address the most distressing aspects of intruder incidents. When a stranger door-surfs into EC, entering multiple halls, invading student rooms, and even shocking residents in their bathrooms, residents, and the wider community, feel violated. Installing cameras and bringing in trained security allows MIT Police to be called more quickly and efficiently; by monitoring the exits, they also increase the likelihood that the intruder is caught. However, the damage to the community will still have occured. For this reason, students have requested additional tap pads. DSL and HRS have replied that the measure would be unhelpful, that it would be a logistical difficulty to have students locked out of their floor without an ID, and that tap pads could have a negative impact on community culture.

The outcome of this process has been confusion, distrust, and frustration. The administration’s decisions have disempowered students. The work that we have put into designing a security system for our living place has been disregarded in favor of a system that we are concerned may not even work. And the pattern of student-administration collaboration being suddenly rejected for a tenuous, contested alternate idea, without any clear explanation, is by now, far past unacceptable. A year ago, in an editorial, “The New Minimum Meal Plan is Misguided,” The Tech listed “the Senior House shutdown, the shift away from implementing a kitchen-based cook-for-yourself community in New Vassar, and the attempts to end mutual selection” as examples. We can now add the continuing debate over the minimum meal plan, the lack of student input to the new 2020 commencement, and graduate rent hikes. Moving forward, DSL needs to commit to a better working relationship with students.

Moving forward, the EC Security Working Group asks that DSL and HRS agree to sign a written agreement stating that administrators and students will work together to implement a plan that ensures the security of EC, both as it is defined by students and the administration. We will agree to keep track of decisions as they occur and to keep an open channel of communication. And we will agree to ongoing reviews so that if the new security system is failing to meet the criteria we care about — both in terms of deterring intruders and its impact upon students — we can revise it together. These steps are essential for re-establishing the trust and community buy-in that any security system will need.

Designing a security system around students’ needs doesn’t mean suddenly shutting us out of the process and implementing a plan fundamentally different from what we had been working on. Letting us decide the details, while logical and appreciated, doesn’t count as collaborating with students. DSL and HRS must understand that when they are working with students to develop policies and practices that directly impact student life, they need to listen to and incorporate student input.

Miana Smith ’21 is the president of East Campus.
Brendan Vaughan ’22 is the vice president of East Campus.
Kiara Carloni ’22 is the treasurer of East Campus.
Shuli Jones ’22 is the secretary of East Campus.
Adira Balzac ’21, Allie Amerman ’23, Eryn Cornelius ’23, Jessica Knapp ’22, Natasha Ter-Saakov ’21, Rafael Olivera-Cintrón ’22, Sophia Diggs-Galligan ’22 are residents of East Campus.
The authors of this piece are members of East Campus’s Security Working Group.

Editor’s Note: Adira Balzac is a senior editor for The Tech.