Risks Of Phone Removal From University Dorm Rooms

Risk:  A Growing And Disturbing Trend
Today the Washington Post and WSJ Blog both reported on a decision by the University of Virgina Housing Division to remove phones from student dorm rooms.  The obvious justification for the decision is the cost associated with providing phone infrastructure residence halls, in UVa’s case over 500K annually.
I can understand the financial predicament many universities find themselves in today’s economy, and clearly students in general are more frequently choosing mobile communications.  Further, it’s noted in the articles that the university intends to provide dedicated phones in the hallways for emergency calls.
Still, I suggest this elimination of dorm phones is going to result in increased risk to students and residence hall staff.  For what it’s worth, I speak from 6 years of experience as a former resident assistant and hall director in residence halls at large public universities.  While this was several years ago, and before the widespread use of cellular phones on campus, the technical and social impact of losing dorm landlines raises several troubling issues.
Risk:  Cellular versus Landline Reliability
First and foremost, having hardline phones in individuals’ dorm rooms provides a constant, always-available, and above all, reliable phone connection.  With the network and cellular connection problems we all constantly experience, which by-the-way we’ve have little insight into the reasons for years, having the peace-of-mind of a reliable hardline should not be dismissed lightly.  If you were starting a business with a office, would you rely soley on a cellular phone?  What would be your reaction if you checked into a hotel and there was no phone? 
Risk:  Emergency Location (e911) Issues
If you have children at home, would you choose not to have a landline?  Probably not, even if you provide them with mobile phones.  You might say this is not a fair question in the context of college students, of whom most are technically adults over age 18.  I’ll counter this with the fact that a typical dorm has students from all over the country and world together in a close-quarter living environment.  As any residential life staff can tell you, the potential for conflict outbreaks of all kinds and levels is a constant threat, and it’s important to remember that these students come from a variety of backgrounds and all have their problems and issues that become magnified in a close-quarter living environment.
From my own experiences as residence hall staff, I’ve handled everything from common roommate conflicts, breaking-up floor parties, suicidal residents, theft/vandalism, residents unconscious from alcohol/drugs, weapons, physical fights, etc.  In every case, having a phone nearby proved invaluable. 
Perhaps an even more important point, on one university campus we had e911 which provided the emergency operator the actual room location from where the phone call was made.  On another campus we did not have that feature, and precious time was lost in the task of determining the call location — in fact, several instances of students dialing 9-911 resulted in them accessing off-campus emergency personnel, resulting the in the time-loss of transferring the call back to campus emergency resources.  And this was the case of landline phones in all rooms — we can expect more confusion as these calls will now go over cellular networks.
While the location capabilities of many cellular phones and e911 is available, the difficulty in pinpointing location should not be overlooked.  Aside from the network congestion and coverage issues I alluded to earlier, in many residence hall situations the building is a multi-story residence.  Expecting cellular e911 to provide emergency responders accuracy to the floor and room is unrealistic in the best of circumstances.  The impact of this is going to be more confusion and lost time in responding to residence hall emergency calls made over cellular.
Risk:  Losing A Known Point of Contact
An overlooked benefit of landlines is that one knows the actual location one is calling (assuming call-forwarding, etc. is not in play).  In the case of dorm rooms, residence hall staff have a listing of all room phone numbers.  Many, many times I’ve used this list to initiate contact with a dorm resident, from trying to determine if someone was in the room without having knocking on the door, following-up with a sick resident or a resident with a disability, or tactically approaching a room party by talking one-on-one with the room’s resident rather than facing a room party and hostile audience in the doorway.
The removal of individual room phones means the loss of a valuable tool in residence hall staff’s toolkit. The ability to initiate contact over the phone to a known room should not be discarded lightly, and the loss of these phones means residence halls staff are losing a tactical advantage.
In the case of roommate and other domestic conflicts, several times I’ve seen a fight escalate to the point where one of the parties called 911.  In some cases, the resident hung-up the phone immediately, before stating the issue to the emergency operator.  Of course, since the call was made from a room landline, and state law required the emergency response to the call location, soon after the university police would arrive at the room.  Often this resulted in the arrest, or referral to student affairs, or the people involved, which lead to them getting assistance. With cellular phones, this response is impaired greatly, and I fear that escalating situations will not reap the benefits of current landline and police response capabilities.
There are some potential loss of privacy issues for dorm residents here as well.  In the case of most landlines, one can more easily choose to block their outgoing caller-id, a useful feature if a dorm resident is calling a crisis line or making inquiries on a subject they wish to remain anonymous.  The ability to do this in private, from ones room, is critical; the common-area landlines in the halls are not going to provide this physical privacy, and given the location of the phones it would not surprise me if the ability to block outgoing caller-id is disabled.  Why?  Because I expect the amount of crank calling from common area phones in dorms will increase by orders of magnitude…
No Easy Answers
Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this dire situation.  Universities, especially in the public sector, are forced to make cost cuts in this poor economy, and telecommunications overhead like dorm phones is a easy measure to take, but the increased risk and costs are at this point not worth it.  The replacement technologies, such as relying on student’s to have cellular phones, or even VoIP phones replacing landlines in dorm rooms, still lack the same robustness in emergency response features that we’ve relied upon on grown accustomed to over the years.  Still, like it or not, the removal of dorm phones is a trend gaining in popularity and we’re only going to see more campuses choosing this path.  To this end, some recommendations I have are:

  • Ensure that student’, and their parents, are made aware of the issues and risks of not having a landline, as well as the benefits

  • Prioritize cellular e911 location tracking on college campuses

  • Require residents with disabilities to have a landline

  • Provide residence hall staff with resident’s cellular numbers

  • Provide a privacy booth for landline phones placed in common areas to enable students to make calls with some level of privacy and caller-id blocking

4 thoughts on “Risks Of Phone Removal From University Dorm Rooms

  1. Bruce Stewart

    This is a disturbing trend and I agree with all of your areas of concern. What surprises me is the claim that providing landline phone service is a financial drain on universities. In a previous career I was a university telecom administrator, and by providing and billing for long-distance services to the student population we were able to turn a tidy profit from our dormitory telephone service.

  2. Shawn Merdinger


    Thanks for your insightful comments. It’s great to hear someone with actual university telcom experience chime in. I concur with your assessment of campus telcoms making a profit, and in fact when I was residence hall staff was provided incentives by the campus telcom service at one university for encouraging residents on my floor to sign-up for services. However, the profit margins for these systems may not be as large these days, and with legacy phone systems it takes specialized people and therefore more costs.

    Overall, the impetus for campuses making this change may be less from a technology-cost and more from a personnel-cost?

  3. Bruce Stewart

    @Shawn, I was wondering the same thing as I submitted that comment. Fifteen years ago, running a decent-sized “university telephone company” was a nice cash cow, but I suspect these days the profits associated with selling long distance services to student populations are far less attractive. There was always a significant personnel cost in running a telecom operation that included billing for long distance, but in those days the profit margins easily made it worthwhile. In today’s climate of highly competitive LD rates and near ubiquitous cell phone usage, I’m guessing those profits will have dwindled drastically.

    But back to your main point here, it’s sure hard to put dollar values on the safety issues that could crop up by removing dorm phones. What is it worth to be able to prevent a burglary or a rape or to get emergency help faster in a dire situation?

  4. Dan York

    @Shawn – good piece! And yes, I agree that there are certainly reliability and location-based security issues with yanking out the landline phones.

    Having said that, a few years ago I spoke at a conference for university telecom administrators and in talking to folks there during the event learned a lot about their situation. I think the reality is that today between the ubiquity of cell phones and the migration to non-voice forms of communication (texting, Facebook, etc.) there is very little incentive for a cash-strapped student to sign up and pay for a dorm room landline. With the decline in subscribers, the cost-per-user for operating the legacy telephony systems, both in terms of ongoing maintenance costs and, sure, also personnel, is certainly going to increase… and obviously at some point universities are just going to kill it.

    I agree, though, that the risks you outline are certainly real ones. We’re all continuing to figure out what this future communication landscape looks like – and these are some of the issues we still need to address.

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