The Key to Security

Sept. 1, 2001
The low-tech, traditional key and lock is still the prevalent means of protection for people and property on campus.

As technology has advanced, it has become common on college and university campuses to see the entrances to residence halls or other buildings protected by access-control systems. Security officials have embraced this technology because they allow schools to monitor more effectively who gets in and out of campus facilities and to spot potential trouble more quickly.

But for colleges and universities, especially large campuses, electronic access control is not a universal solution. With dozens of buildings and many thousands of doors, not to mention desks, cabinets and other areas that require some level of security, schools cannot afford to install access-control systems at each door and entryway on a campus.

So most campuses still depend heavily on traditional locks and keys to provide the lion's share of security for people and property.

“We still have regular locks and keys most everywhere,” says Ronnie Schultz, building access supervisor at Texas A & M University in College Station.


When an entryway is controlled electronically with a card or keypad, or mechanically with the turn of a key, the objective is the same: let the right people in, and keep the wrong people out.

“Basically, locks are the same,” says Charles Williams, a locksmith at the University of Louisville. “There has been a lot of redesign over the years, but the principles of how they work are pretty much the same.”

Electronic access control is most effective for entryways used by large numbers of people, such as main building entrances and stairwell doors. For entryways to more specific areas, especially students' rooms, a lock and key usually provide the desired security.

“Stand-alone cylindrical locks still play a major role on our campus,” says Williams. “It isn't feasible to go through a whole building and install electronic systems on every door.”

Despite their low-tech status, keys have a lot going for them: People are familiar with keys and how they work, and they are accustomed to having them jingle in their pockets. Schools have so many locks and keys; therefore most have an organized system in place to manage their campus's needs.

The major problem with keys on a college campus is that they are easy to lose, especially by college students who haven't yet accepted the added personal responsibility required when living away from home for the first time.

Not only do students and staff lose keys, but also keys may break off in a lock, or residence-hall pranksters can easily disable a lock.

“We do a lot of emergency lock changes,” says Cynthia Freeman, key control coordinator at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “The first one we do for free, but after that, the students have to pay.”

And because students often lose their keys in the middle of the night, locksmiths on a campus have to be available 24 hours a day. To provide the most security, many colleges install a new lock rather than just provide a duplicate key.

“Housing is priority one,” says Williams. “It's a safety issue. You're talking about the students.”

Even in situations where a key isn't lost, schools will often re-key a lock as a precaution.

“When students move out of a room, the lock will be re-keyed,” says Freeman. “Maybe a key didn't get turned in, and we don't want to take a chance that someone will try to use it later.”


The consequences of losing a key become compounded when it controls access to more than just an individual room, or if it opens a lock that many people use. To make sure that property and people are safe, a school will have to re-key the door and replace all the keys in use.

In those cases, the loss of a single key can lead to a wider security breach if that key can be duplicated. Many keys are stamped with the warning, “Do Not Duplicate,” but that won't always prevent a locksmith from doing so.

Keys that come with a utility patent offer schools added protection against unauthorized duplication. With a patented key, only those holding the patent for a particular key can duplicate or authorize the duplication of keys.

“The keys we use are licensed to the university and are unique,” says Freeman. “The key blanks are different. No one else has them.”

Even for colleges that rely on traditional locks and keys in most situations, technology can help. Many schools have computerized their records to help them keep better track of who has which keys and to provide duplicates more quickly.

Some schools have set up web pages that allow students and staff to report key problems and order duplicates or replacements online.

Colleges and universities that have an organized system in place to keep track of who has been given keys are more likely to avoid security trouble. In some cases, a school's lock shop or facilities department will keep track of keys; other schools place the responsibility on individual departments.

“It's up to each department who it issues its keys to,” says Freeman. “It's up to them to keep track of who has keys. Most departments do pretty well.”


Besides cutting new keys and replacing locks, a college's locksmiths can help schools spot potential security breaches on campus.

“We're always making suggestions when we see something that could be a problem,” says Williams.

A lock and a key can provide good security, but those systems are only as effective as the equipment that surrounds it. The lock installed may be impenetrable, but an intruder can still take advantage of an inadequate doorframe, hinges or wall.

“You can have a steel door and a steel frame, and a $500 lock, but if the wall right next to it is drywall, that's not going to get it done,” says Williams.

Much of the hardware that is now available for doors has improved tamper-resistant features and holds up better against vandalism.

For instance, many schools installed doors with levers instead of knobs to abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Early on, says Williams, those levers were too rigid in a locked position and broke often. Newer models now have a clutch system so the lock doesn't give way.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

Court says university must provide security information

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has reinstated a lawsuit against the University of Maine system brought by a female student who was sexually assaulted in a residence hall.

The victim was a 17-year-old girl attending a soccer program in 1997 at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. She was attacked in her residence-hall room by a man who walked her home from a party. She had let him into the building after he said he was going to visit friends in the same building.

A lower court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the girl. The judge agreed with the university that it met its duty by “providing a dormitory that was reasonably safe and secure in light of the circumstances.”

However, the state Supreme Court found that “the university owed a duty to reasonably warn and advise students of steps they could take to improve their personal safety.”

The girl contended that the school failed to warn her of any dangers or explain the security measures in place to protect students.

The case was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings.

For more stories on access control, visit the article archives at

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

Sponsored Recommendations

Latest from mag