Putting Campus Safety Front and Center with Cisco Meraki


College is more than just a collection of classes. Interactions with professors, students, and staff can have long-lasting impacts, and the connections made during that time can affect the trajectory of someone’s life.

At The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), we are acutely aware of the influences we have on our students. TCNJ was founded in 1855 as a teaching college, and today we have one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the United States. Located in Ewing Township, New Jersey, we are close to Philadelphia and New York City, and offer a powerful liberal arts education with programs in Business, Education, Engineering, and Nursing, among others. Our enrollment is about 7,400, including more than 600 graduate students.

I came to the college about five years ago to serve as Director of Infrastructure. At the time, I was the second in command to our CIO and in charge of the technical elements of our IT infrastructure, such as servers, networking, and switches. I was effectively responsible for all the things everybody needs, but nobody wants to see.

Similar to the college experience, our IT infrastructure has gone through many transitions. For a long time we built our architecture entirely on-premises, with bare metal servers stacked in a room. That design worked initially, but by the time I arrived we were definitely due for an upgrade. Slowly, we moved to a more modern, cloud-first approach.

Our New Mantra: Scalable, Agile, and Nimble

If I learned one thing from our time with physical architecture, it’s that simple designs can quickly get out of hand. Most organizations start with only the equipment they need and then add more pieces when the demand arises. That results in a hodgepodge of random technologies connected by forests of wires. Most importantly, as the architecture grows, it gets increasingly difficult to adapt it to new purposes.

Most organizations start with only the equipment they need and then add more pieces when the demand arises. But as the architecture grows, it gets increasingly difficult to adapt it to new purposes.

Accordingly, fairly early in my time with TCNJ, I came up with my mantra. Anything we do has to be scalable, agile, and nimble—everything our old system was not. Anytime we considered a new layout, technology, or software, I asked: Is it scalable? Is it agile? Is it nimble? If any proposed technologies failed one of those tests, we rejected the idea.

The campus security architecture I inherited was based on a Honeywell system. We had a wide range of camera technologies all tied into a single structure. It was monolithic and cumbersome, with expensive licensing. In addition, cameras were always going offline and any changes required a huge amount of effort.

Further complicating the design, the cameras along the campus perimeter fell under the purview of our construction and facilities staff. That meant if our campus police officers wanted new cameras in border areas, the construction and facilities staff had to put out an RFP and use external contractors, which resulted in delays and extra costs. Nearly a year into my tenure, I decided to change the way things were done. 

A Shift to the Cloud

We created an RFP for a robust system update, including new cameras. The bids we received confirmed that this equipment, plus the new DVR and licensing, was going to be very expensive. The cost of new investments is often the biggest barrier to a purchase, so instead of making the case for this system, I went another direction.

During conversations with the university President and the campus Chief of Police, I mentioned that we could get a much better ROI if we instead invested in a cloud-based system like Cisco Meraki. Based on my previous experience with the platform, I knew we could get double the number of cameras for the same price.

However, rather than letting my bias toward Meraki influence the process, I decided to step back so they could come to their own conclusion. We went out to a few companies and gave them a chance to make a pitch. However, in the end, our campus police department, dispatch team, and residential offices were impressed by the new capabilities and reliability of the cloud-based system, as well as the support system behind the product. Everyone agreed to move forward with Meraki.

A flexible, cloud-based security system helps IT and campus security keep up with the needs of a modern campus environment.

Cisco offered live demos by hanging a few Meraki MV cameras and walking us through the dashboard. Right away, we realized some new possibilities. It was easy to record and save video from a single screen. We could also send videos to necessary parties, who could watch that footage on their mobile device. The old process for recording video took about 18 steps and viewing that video required people to physically enter the main station to watch the footage. We now had a flexible system that could keep up with the needs of a modern campus environment.

The Transition to a More Secure Campus

Next came the migration. Since our police could not secure the campus without cameras, we had to keep the old system running while we installed the update. We started with a simple tear down and replaced the infrastructure in two phases with the help of third-party integrator Core BTS. The changeover of equipment went very quickly. 

Safety is about more than just replacing #technology. People also have to be aware of the upgrades.

Once we had the technology in place, it was time to deal with the human element of the transition. We started with several small group training sessions to help get people familiar with the system. During the process, we saw how easy and intuitive Meraki was for people without a technical background. The dispatch area was also completely renovated and reflects our new clean, modern look. They now have video board walls with six 50” screens so they can see all the camera views in real time.

Of course, the new cameras and better platform made it easier for the campus police to do their jobs. However, safety is about more than just replacing technology. People also have to be aware of the upgrades. We launched a PR blitz announcing the new cameras and security system. We put the new technology front and center and made a big deal about our commitment to a secure campus. The Residence Life department even incorporated TCNJ’s mascot, Roscoe the lion. They made signs letting everyone know that “Roscoe’s watching” with our new cameras. 

Before, campus security was like IT, mostly operating in the background unless something was wrong. This campaign and our hardware update brought campus security to the forefront, and we offered this new system as a campus perk. It was included in marketing materials sent to prospective families, letting them know the investments we made to keep students safe.

Meraki Brings Benefits Across Departments

As a result of our changes, we saved a lot of money on licenses. But perhaps even more critical, we tripled the number of cameras on campus for the same price. This increased our visibility and has also helped to change behavior. People are more aware that there are cameras everywhere, which we hope serves as a deterrent for bad behavior. One of our students even mentioned that she changed her route on campus to one where she knew she’d be more visible.

We also improved our collaboration between campus departments, especially IT, Residence Life, and our campus police. Additionally, the perimeter security cameras are now directly managed by IT. Responsiveness is incredibly important when the safety of our students and staff is at stake, and now that the cameras fall under our remit, we can quickly respond to requests to change, add, or otherwise alter the cameras on campus. 

As an example, we had a number of thefts in the atrium of our Social Sciences Building and we didn’t have the right visibility into the space. The flexibility of our new system made it easy for us to change the angle of the cameras so that campus police could get the footage they needed to investigate.

We also love that the software-based environment makes it easier to update and integrate new innovations. With our old system, attaining new functions meant buying additional cameras with the desired feature. Now a software update to our Meraki MV cameras gives us features like still photos. The system is also more reliable, so cameras are always online.

Our new cloud environment also makes it easier to strategically deploy human resources. Instead of everyone on campus assembling in one place to monitor the system, our staff can operate where they are needed. We placed an IT person within the campus police station, so they always have someone to contact rather than calling a helpline. In general, we can dedicate resources as needed, such as providing the residential staff additional support during the beginning of the semester.

More Visibility Into Our Campus Environment

Based on what we have experienced so far, I can't wait to see what the future has in store for TCNJ. We are looking into a number of other upgrades, such as integrating our card swipe and security systems. We could also use the system to manage a series of triggering events. A propped open door could alert the camera so that the campus police could watch the scene or investigate anything unusual. Motion capture sensors could alert campus police if something is moving in a certain restricted or closed space. And by knowing these protocols exist, people might be more likely to report something. 

Eventually, we might even go beyond images and use environmental sensors. IT staff could get alerts when the server rooms get too hot, for example, or when they pick up on sudden increases in the moisture level. All of this could be managed through the existing Meraki dashboard.

Meraki has changed the way we protect our people and how we make them feel safe. The new system has completely opened our eyes to the possibilities and provided a roadmap to features that once seemed impossible. Our system has gained visibility and predictability and is more scalable, agile, and nimble than ever before.