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Opinion: Willamette University Lags in Modernizing and Securing Campus

Priya Thoren

Staff Writer

Art by Maille Olgyay

An email announcing the switch from swipe access cards to proximity/tap cards was sent by Willamette University former Director of Campus Safety Ross Stout on November 30. First beginning with the residential halls and extending to the PNCA campus, the safety of the university’s students and staff has been prioritized when making this commendable choice.

Currently, the project has seen some delay and, clearly, the new access cards have not been fully implemented post-winter break, and are instead expected to be seen on all buildings by at least

May, according to Willamette’s Service Center Manager, David Kebekol.

The new access cards will not be not a stand-alone addition for the school, and they have no new features other than a new software platform to drive it, Stout said in an interview, “It's part of the university's deferred maintenance upgrade of a number of infrastructure needs, like the fire alarm systems in the residence halls. This is a component of that, because it's integrated into a software platform…this was another product line that they offer,” he explained.

This has been a decision in the making for about two years. “[Siemens Automation Company] is able to utilize the existing wiring that we have, but the readers are being replaced. There is the requirement that new cards be issued, using a RFID—RF meaning radio frequency—transmitter receiver system versus the system we've been using of magnetic stripes,” Stout said.

Despite the time that has gone into planning this transition, Kebekol noted that “everything will probably be done right before graduation. Initially we thought it would be done by winter break, but that was not a possibility with the amount of card readers on campus and the small team that’s working on it and getting everything converted.”

The magnetic stripes system that is currently still on most of the university’s buildings is not flawless, and the new RFID system won’t be either. However, this is not a cause for concern; there was no security breach that occurred to spur this change. “The RF radio frequency technology is more secure than magnetic strips; magnetic strips can be copied and people can purchase hardware to create them. However, the system that we currently have—and have had for many years—has an encryption technology in it which would be very complicated for someone to duplicate…and is therefore very secure. The possibility exists to copy RFID technology as well. However, the cards we have purchased through Siemens are from a company called HID. They are… an industry leader in proximity card technology,” Stout explained.

In addition to new access cards, a few other changes will be introduced to campus. “The university borrowed money for a number of different deferred maintenance issues, fire alarms, replacing roofs… we're going to be getting a new emergency notification system, probably coming online next year, and a new video camera system. These are all integrated into a single kind of dashboard where all of these systems can be monitored at a central location and talk to one another,” Stout said.

One thing that I appreciate about this plan is the acknowledgement of inconveniences that some members of the community have been experiencing with the swipe access card system. Particularly, individuals who rotate between the Salem and Portland campuses. “Convenience is really an issue that we're addressing with this. [The Portland campus] is actually operating on the same software system we’re using [at the Salem campus]. However,… we're actually using two different card technologies in each of the two campuses. So people are carrying two cards, and the cards don't cross over… They're having to be updated independent of one another. It's kind of a mess that we will clean up and resolve both from a convenience standpoint in terms of customer usage, and in terms of data entry when we are a fully operational new system,” Stout said.

Although the scheduling did not work out, the Service Center is still looking forward towards their goal of having one card for both campuses. “It will be easier for everyone to get into buildings with less interruption and more convenience,” Kebekol said.

The plan was not to address a security breach or security concern, but rather to induce an update to 21st century technology, according to Stout. The cards have plastic holders, but still have the benefit of fitting into a wallet. “It’s one component of several—fire alarm systems, the video cameras, the emergency notification—all being integrated into a single kind of user platform in terms of monitoring the system,” he added.

Overall, the pros of the new system are beneficial to the entire university community. Though the addition of the access cards has been delayed, the school keeping up with new technologies ensures the safest possible environment.

“The team…doesn’t have that much staff… This is all through contractors, with Siemens. So they are working their hardest and trying to get their work up to schedule. But initially, card readers not being available and things of that nature was what was holding [the project] up,” Kebekol said.

As new technologies emerge, it is fundamental for schools to be on top of things—if they aren’t, it could lead to unsafe and unreliable systems and put everyone on campus in danger. If they get implemented in a more timely nature, the additional advantages being added along with the access cards also point the school in the right direction, and hopefully this trend will continue.

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