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As MIT Closes More Doors, Our Campus Loses its Open Feel

Column by Stacey E. Blau
Opinion Editor

One of the best things about MIT is its open campus. If you're a new student you may not have thought much about that fact, or even noticed it, unless maybe you went on an Orange Tour or have spent time wandering through MIT's buildings late at night.

Most people don't think much about MIT's open campus policy immediately, at least not at first. It's one of those things that you kind of come to appreciate over time when you see its benefits. It's convenient if you like to hack or even just take long walks around buildings. It allows students and activities to work in heavily-trafficked areas like the Student Center at any hour almost every day of the year. An open campus policy also makes classrooms available to students for use at night to do problem sets or invite friends to watch movies.

Unfortunately, MIT's open campus also allows trespassers and potential thieves to walk in off streets and into buildings. In recent years MIT has been slowly but quite surely tightening its control of buildings, making MIT less and less of an open campus. That's an unfortunate move.

Access to an increasing number of buildings, particularly on the eastern end of campus, is restricted by card readers. The readers were installed about two years ago as a part of a pilot plan to improve campus security. As far as anyone is concerned, however, card readers are a permanent fixture on those buildings, and we can expect them on more and more entrances.

No one can doubt that a massive and close-to bulletproof security system on campus would reduce crime (at least the crime its meant to cut down on - thefts by outsiders). But the card reader system represents no such solution.

Its current implementation, for one thing, is absolutely pathetic. The card reader on one of the entrances to Building 66 isn't working half the time, and even when it is, an adjacent door to the building is often open. At night, if you enter the connection between Building 56 and 66 from the north side (that is, coming from Building 20), you'll probably notice that the loading dock right next to the door is wide open and lit, practically inviting people to come inside. The loading dock entrance takes you right into the ground floor of Building 56.

Of course, from the perspective of promoting an open campus, I don't mind that these buildings are as open as ever. But it is telling that things remain the same while MIT Card promoters like Chief of Campus Police Anne P. Glavin make fantastic claims on its behalf.

The fact is that these card readers exist largely to make the powers that be feel better about the job they're doing to increase campus security. If they really believed that these card readers were crucial, they'd care enough to make the readers work and they wouldn't allow entrances next to the readers to be left wide open.

Something pretty obvious to anyone who knows their way around the MIT campus even a little, or a thief who cares enough to find out, is that even if the Building 56 and Building 66 card reader entrances were kept secure, anyone can simply travel a little further (say, to the Infinite Corridor) to find an open entrance to buildings. But then the only real way to achieve security is to seal off every building entrance.

That, of course, is the plan. The effect this card reader pilot plan has on crime doesn't really matter. If crime goes down, then people can make the argument that the card readers are doing their job. If crime goes up or doesn't change significantly, then the need for card reader security should be all the more evident.

And the cost we have to pay is a campus that is no longer open. Sure, the people who are allowed to get in to places will have their MIT Cards programmed to let them it, and probably most buildings will still be open to everyone with a card. But it's not hard to imagine this first big step in access restriction leading to restrictions that gradually begin to keep more and more people out. Once the card readers are in place such restrictions would be as simple as some small changes by a bureaucrat in the MIT Card office.

The end of MIT's open campus would be a pretty sad thing for the Institute. MIT's open campus is representative of the freedoms people find here - things people come to appreciate only after living on campus for some time. Like the freedom to opt out of a meal plan. Or the fact that there's no limit on the number of classes you can take after your freshman year. And the fact that nobody enforces the state law on underage drinking. These freedoms are an important part of MIT's philosophy.

There are few restrictions on where you can go at MIT, and most of us like that fact. But at the same time, we all know that there's a trade-off there when it comes to security. We have people trespassing, and we have thefts; just look at the police log. But the process of moving toward a closed campus is happening before our eyes, and MIT has to ask itself now if that's what we want. I'd guess that Glavin and other security promoters would say yes. But the rest of us, who don't want to see MIT locked up, say no.