Locked out of Wilson

By Joe LoPresti ’15

At the beginning of this academic year, Princeton Housing and Real Estate Services began a pilot program in part of Wilson College as part of the effort to replace the current dorm locks with a new system of keyless locks. Residents need to use both their University ID cards (i.e., their proxes) and a 4-digit numerical passcode in order to open the door. Most of the campus community seems to be aware of the fact that this change has begun. However, many students have yet to hear anything beyond the most basic facts, even in the weeks after the new locks were installed in other down-campus facilities lacking functioning passcodes. Since then, students have had mixed reactions, with many students strongly criticizing the University for the policy. It appears that many of the issues surrounding the keyless locks do not pertain to the locks themselves, but to the lack of clarity on implementation and communication from Housing in the process thus far.

The root causes of the frustration with the new locks are numerous, but the program’s implementation is chief among them. I spoke with Thomas Markham ’15, a resident of Feinberg Hall in Wilson College, where the locks were recently installed. Markham noted that he received an e-mail during the Winter Recess informing him that the change was to be made. When he returned to campus, he found out that the locks would not be fully operational. “As it turns out… we still have to use our key,” he explained, describing the convoluted process by which the door can be opened while in this in-between state. Essentially, the key has to be held in the turned position until a green light on the locking mechanism turns on, at which point the handle can be turned; however, the key must remain in the turned position while opening the door, or else the light will turn off and the door will lock again.

While Markham found this state of affairs annoying in and of itself, his main source of frustration was the lack of communication about any progress towards full implementation. In fact, since the initial installation, Markham said he had not received any new information about the locks: “Since [Housing] installed [the locks], they haven’t said anything.” No indication has been given as to when –or  even if – the  keyless component of the keyless locks will be activated. It seems communication is not the Housing department’s strong suit: despite attempts to reach Housing for comment on this article, the department never provided a response or information. It seems likely that the status quo will continue into the foreseeable future for the rooms where the locks were recently installed.

But the most common complaint about the new locks isn’t even about the locks themselves. Rather, it is the fact that doors with the new locks may not be left unlocked. Although students who live up-campus have never been able to leave their doors unlocked in this fashion, many students, including those in Butler, Wilson, and Forbes Colleges, have had this ability. Many of those who could for the first semester, but now cannot, are reacting negatively. Mitchell Johnston ’15, a resident of 1939 Hall in Wilson College, spoke about his experience with the locks since their installation in his dorm in January. He noted that it is “hard to open them one-handed,” and also remarked that the inability to leave the door unlocked is an “inconvenience,” especially when friends come over. Johnston mentioned that others keep their door propped open by taping it or putting a garbage can in front of it, although Princeton’s Fire Safety policies expressly forbid such actions.

In light of these issues, perhaps it would have been prudent for Housing to take a different approach to the process. Had installation of the new locks occurred over the summer rather than in the middle of the year, there would likely have been fewer complaints and less confusion. The difficulty of opening the new locks with keys is not surprising; they are called keyless locks for a reason. Additionally, more communication, both in conveyance of information and requests for input, could have aided the transition. It seems foolish that students do not know if or when their locks will begin to operate as per their intended design. Beyond that, it seems possible for the University to program the new locks such that they could be left unlocked. If Housing has a compelling reason why this cannot be done, explaining it to those involved would take a step toward reducing ill will.

The reactions towards the new policy are not entirely negative, however. “There’s a lot of misinformation going around,” said Andrew Min ’15, a resident of 1938 Hall in Wilson College, in an interview (Min is also a staff writer for the Princeton Tory). As residents of one of the buildings in the pilot program, Min and his roommates, Tyler Tamasi, Alexander Smith, and Cornellius Metto (all Class of 2015), have had the keyless locks since arriving on campus in September. Min believes that students are complaining about the new system due to a lack of complete understanding of it. The pilot program seems to have avoided at least some of those issues. Just as intended, the locks operated by using a prox with a passcode. “We each have a code that was assigned to us,” he mentioned, pointing out that the codes are unique for each roommate.

In our conversation, the sentiments about the locks themselves ranged between ambivalent and mildly positive. Min liked the fact that he never had to worry about having or losing a key. Though he had heard many people claiming that the switch was made out of concerns about the safety of doors being left unlocked, he responded, “I just see it as a convenience thing rather than a safety thing.” Smith was less definitive, saying, “I don’t have any feelings for it in general.” The one complaint among the pilot program members was the fact that they had to sync their proxes to a hotspot in nearby Wilcox Hall roughly every ten days for the lock to continue to work. Tamasi mentioned once being locked out due to this issue, though he was able to walk to the hotspot and fix the situation with little difficulty. He also found it “suspicious” that Housing could set how frequently the syncing had to occur, although all four roommates understood that the syncing was something that would be phased out after the program was fully implemented in the near future.

Ultimately, the problems that people seem to have with the new locks are not really about the keyless locking mechanism itself, but rather about the poor implementation and communication. The current difficulty of using the locks in the non-pilot dorms and the strange syncing necessity for pilot dorms both relate to the order and organization of the process of phasing in the new locks. No longer being able to leave the door unlocked is not a direct consequence of the new locks; it is likely that there would be some way for the University to allow for that if they so desired. More communication from Housing and Real Estate Services, along with an effort to work more closely with students during the transition would make things more pleasant for all parties involved. When asked why he seemed less frustrated with the new locks than the others I had spoken to, Min attributed it to the fact that he did not have to switch over in the middle of the year. “We had it from the beginning,” he said, mentioning that once the program has been fully implemented, “The [incoming] freshman will not know any better,” hinting at the superiority of a summer phase-in. Markham was not so positive. “If they had given us the combination, it would have been fine,” he explained with some hesitation, “but honestly, I would have preferred it the way it was.”

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