A Pragmatic Approach to High-Tech Security on Campus


Although the nature of campus life has changed dramatically over the last few decades, an institution's challenge of developing a safe, dynamic learning environment has not. Campus riots of the '70s have been replaced by fears of crime, terrorism and natural disasters. While electronic surveillance has proven to be extremely useful at apprehending offenders, the preventive side of technological solutions still has a long way to go. One thing is clear: Technology's importance continues to grow on campus just as it has in the government and private sectors.

The challenges are as interesting as they are frustrating. Budgetary constraints aside, many universities are reluctant to discuss their safety measures for a couple of reasons. First, student and staff safety, while critical, is not usually a topic educators want to discuss publicly for fear of revealing their methods to would-be perpetrators. Secondly, to admit that a school is looking for a new public-safety solution is to acknowledge that a problem actually exists. However, the fact still remains that campuses face a formidable challenge in communicating with their student body. In the event of an emergency, for example, faculty and staff now rely on everything from driving around campus with a megaphone to manually placing calls to students.

New Model of Technology Awareness

Since the events of Sept. 11, campus administrators either have been forced or volunteered to adopt more stringent technological systems. This technology is being integrated to help train their students for IT security careers, track students due to government mandates and communicate with students in the event of an emergency. The challenge is complex, especially considering how decentralized a campus' security, IT and safety systems are today.

Campus security forces are rarely integrated, according to Jack Pellicci, group vice president of business development for Oracle's government, education and healthcare division, "We're trying to urge schools to consolidate their security forces into one responsible overarching agency, including a school's campus, security and cyber police forces."

Pellicci believes that focusing on technology in the telephony field - keeping students informed of dangerous events or situations - is one of the best ways to prevent, or at worst, reduce the effects of a dangerous or life-threatening situation. He says the new model of technology awareness is being led by the roughly 50 schools designated as Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by The National Security Agency, which offers NSA Information Assurance certificates to schools that qualify.

According to NSA, the Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education Program "is intended to reduce vulnerabilities in the national information infrastructure by promoting higher education in information assurance and producing a growing number of professionals with information assurance expertise in various disciplines." In addition, universities designated as centers are eligible to apply for federal scholarships and grants.

Foreign-Student Tracking System

The mandated adoption of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) program by many universities this year was one of the largest scale and most controversial technological projects campus IT professionals were recently faced with implementing. Tech-minded colleges, such as The University of Texas at Austin, have adopted SEVIS, which provides tracking, monitoring and access to accurate and current information on nonimmigrant students, including exchange visitors.

The project is a joint venture between the departments of Homeland Security, State and Education. SEVIS was initially met with frustration by many school administrators who found the task of entering a large amount of data daunting. But, it is now a mandatory policy for all higher education institutions that accept international student enrollment.

According to the Bureau of Citizenship and Information Services (BCIS), the system automates "the manual data-collection process that schools and exchange visitor programs are already utilizing to gather information on their students, scholars and exchange visitors." Data collected includes basic immigration information as well as a student's visa and academic status. The data entered by a school or exchange program resides in a central database on a server maintained by BCIS, which is accessible by schools and exchange programs via its Web site.

The deadline was Aug. 1, by which all schools that admit foreign students - about 74,000 in all - were required to enter data into the system regarding foreign students who were enrolled prior to Feb. 15, 2003. This dramatic acceleration of the system affected higher education IT departments, international student offices and human resources departments as they worked to meet the implementation deadline. SEVIS compliance is also having an impact on school admissions since a significant percentage of foreign students have been reluctant to apply to universities that use this tracking system. At press time, it wasn't known how many universities actually met the government mandate.

'311' System

Ron Police, Oracle's executive vice president of higher education, spearheads the team that offers universities the means to tie a school's existing databases and applications together with SEVIS requirements. "While we provide an integrated platform for a school's SEVIS compliance, we also help the student stay safe from the first day of classes," says Police. Oracle's applications can be accessed on staff cell phones, as well as on PDAs equipped to receive instant messages and notifications.

Schools adopting integrated technology platforms are now able to track students from the day they apply and/or are recruited to the day they leave. Police says these platforms are even being integrated into the nascent "311" system on selected campuses nationwide, which provides the toll-free 311 number that is devoted to nonemergency calls to police and other government offices.

A critical security period occurs at the beginning of each term for all students, especially incoming freshmen who are often in unfamiliar surroundings. "We provide tools for students to register for classes without waiting in line or even needing to be present," according to Police, who says Oracle's online registration process is finding traction at many schools nationwide. "Students can stay safe at home or in their assigned living quarters during this often chaotic time."

Mobile Communications System Keeps Universities, Students Connected

Emerging technologies are beginning to make a difference in the way campuses communicate during a crisis. When an emergency occurred at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., school officials turned to a familiar technology: cell phones equipped with robust features that allowed them to reach a large number of students at once and account for their safety. The university was able to immediately ascertain the disposition and geographical location of each student by pushing a series of preset numbers on their cell phones.

This technology, offered by Ascendent Telecommuni-cations, is one method that several universities, including Marquette and The University of Chicago, are adapting to allow themselves to reach students and administrators at all times. The technology connects to both the university's PBX and the students' personal remote phone devices, allowing for instant student contact and accountability. It also eliminates the previous expense of providing the school's emergency response team with two-way radios.

Ascendent's technology is also being used when schools are forced to provide temporary living quarters to incoming freshmen. "Ascendent helped us communicate with students who were living in temporary living quarters outside of student housing," said Rick Arcuri, associate dean for administration residence life of Marquette, in a statement. "No matter where the student moves, they keep the same phone number and we can stay in touch with them. Ascendent's RollCall feature helps us to communicate with a large number of students in the case of an emergency." The feature allows a group of people to receive and respond to a voice, SMS or e-mail message.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.