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Forty-six Steelcase chairs have been stolen from the Student Center’s 24-hour reading room; their replacement cost is about $20,000. Inexpensive task chairs (center) have replaced some stolen chairs.
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Frustrated by a rash of thefts in the Student Center throughout the fall semester, especially the loss of $20,000 worth of chairs, Campus Activities Complex Director Phillip J. Walsh said he is facing a new problem of physical security.

Since 1988, when Walsh first came to MIT, he has “never had a real problem with theft as we have had this year,” he said. The MIT Police’s crime logs report six serious instances of theft or property damage in the building this fall and countless more instances of petty larceny in the building.

Walsh said that a sharp increase in thefts spurred the CAC to close the Student Center during winter break for eight days, about twice as long as the usual holiday closures.

Perhaps the most dramatic disappearance in recent history was the December theft of a safe from the Student Life Programs’s fifth floor office. But the theft of chairs from the 24-hour reading room represents the largest capital loss reported this fall.

Paul Buckley, CAC night manager, said in an e-mail that 46 of the room’s Steelcase chairs have been stolen since its Orientation 2006 opening and that most of the thefts happened between August 2007 and October 2007.

The replacement cost for each of the stolen chairs is $437.25, so the total replacement cost of the stolen chairs is $20,113.50, Buckley said. Walsh said that he expects MIT’s theft insurance will cover the losses but that the Insurance Office had asked the CAC to review security in the reading room.

CAC Assistant Director Jennifer B. Smith said that she is considering a library-style security system, in which the chairs would be tagged so that they could not leave the reading room without setting off an alarm. She said that such a system would cost about $10,000. Since the CAC has no security budget, according to Walsh, securing the reading room would directly affect the organization’s funding for other space improvements.

Many of the large thefts reported to the MIT Police in fall 2007 were thefts from student group offices; the Association of Student Activities is investigating security issues surrounding the thefts, ASA President James R. Peacock IV ’08 said.

Smith said that the CAC would run an education campaign in the spring to encourage people to keep their possessions safe.

This past fall semester, CAC staff visited numerous Student Center locations, including The Tech’s office, to check for the stolen chairs. Walsh said no chairs were found this way —he said that he thought the chairs had been taken to dormitory rooms or had been taken by professional thieves.

Walsh said that although keeping the Student Center secure is important, he did not want to implement certain security measures — like security cameras — that could hurt MIT’s open-campus nature or its unique culture of openness and respect. “I want students to view this place as theirs,” he said.

Angeline Wang contributed to the reporting of this article.