Technology and Campus Services
By Matt Villano
Can auxiliary services be mission-critical? You bet they can. With tuition on the rise, Auxiliary Services departments at a variety of colleges and universities are proving that they can innovate and still save their parent institutions cash. First in auxiliary services innovation: With advancements in technology, a handful of institutions are moving campus purchasing programs into the wireless space. Second: With the proliferation of junk mail, learning centers are finding new ways to eliminate paper waste and improve efficiency across the board. Finally: As environmental conservation becomes a bigger concern, schools are embracing buildings that don’t harm the Earth, and many of the services involved in those efforts make use of “green” approaches and innovative technologies. Put simply, auxiliary services aren’t so auxiliary anymore.
“Every dollar a school can save in terms of auxiliary services means one less dollar in raised tuition,” says Bob Hassmiller, executive director of the National Association of College Auxiliary Services, an industry organization based in Charlottesville, VA. “Meeting the demands to give better service and charge more reasonable rates for those services is what continues to put [auxiliary services] in the forefront.”
Nobody understands these sentiments better than officials at Duke University (NC), where officials sought to enable students to use the DukeCard to complete transactions via the Blackboard Transaction System at off-site locations such as athletic events. For years, Duke’s campus card officials accomplished this feat by stretching wires from the nearest Ethernet port or by handling transactions with paper receipts and reconciling them later. Finally, in 2003, the team had had enough of this setup, and set out to explore opportunities to utilize the school’s pervasive wireless network to its advantage.
The quest for new technology began when DukeCard programmers developed a browser-based application that worked on a number of mobile devices around campus. The team presented the concept at the annual Blackboard User’s Conference in Baltimore, where it was received with interest. Because the DukeCard office wasn’t in a position to develop the product, Blackboard partner Sequoia Retail Systems stepped in and integrated the browser with the Sequoia Wireless Campus Card Reader. Matthew Drummond, director of the DukeCard office, says this device changed the school’s entire approach virtually overnight.
“As the success of the wireless transaction has grown, more and more demand has been put on us to provide these services anytime, anywhere around campus,” he says. Noting that the latest card readers are no larger than a standard personal digital assistant (PDA), he adds, “This technology enables us to do just that.”
Today, the devices, nearly 20 in all, enable DukeCard officials to access user activity and account privileges, process debit and credit transactions, make deposits, give refunds, and check balances, all in real time over the wireless network. The devices also can store offline transactions, validate them against a snapshot of the cardholder database, and post them when it reconnects to the network. Drummond says that since the system was rolled out in late 2004, the devices have cataloged more than 52,000 transactions totaling more than $350,000. Last year, on a single Saturday with a number of events, the DukeCard office ran 12 different devices in six different locations at the same time.
Drummond adds that his team also uses the tools in more than 20,500 validation transactions where proof of enrollment is required. Case in point: the annual iPod distribution. Every year, the school doles out iPods to all incoming freshmen. By using the wireless campus card readers to scan student IDs, the DukeCard office is able to ensure they are giving devices only to eligible students. This distribution procedure also has been used for events where attendees had to meet specific requirements such as yearbook distribution, First Year picnic, and Senior Night. According to Drummond, the technology has made organizing these outings easy.
“Previously, we accomplished this kind of distribution with paper lists from the registrar, and it was really time-consuming to comb through all the names to find the correct person,” says Drummond. “Now, we just bring the card readers, and that’s it.”
Just about the only challenge Duke has had with the devices is simply keeping track of them. Over the course of the 2005-2006 school year, the DukeCard Office used the mobile readers at more than 350 events, making scheduling and handoffs tricky. Earlier this year, the team wrote a custom Web application to create a comprehensive snapshot of the distribution schedule. The application presents data in an overview like the triage board in a hospital emergency room, laying out which departments have the readers and which are next in line. So far, as a result of this application, Drummond says the school hasn’t lost a device. Considering they cost $2,500 apiece, that’s a good thing.
Duke plans to expand the mobile card reader project to include special cell phones with readers built in. The phones will process transactions on the DukeCard system just like card readers do, only they will do it over the Nextel cellular network that covers the campus.
According to Drummond, a local food-service delivery company tested this technology in a pilot program earlier this year, and was able to process credit card payments instantaneously as the food was exchanged. Down the road, the program also will enable the university to quickly settle outstanding bills with local vendors and virtually eliminate fraud. “With this technology, we can help everybody – not just ourselves,” he says. “I’m excited to see where it g'es next.”
Eliminating Junk Mail
Environmentally conscious schools are turning to auxiliary services to eliminate one of the biggest sources of pollution and waste: junk mail. Every day, campus mailrooms are inundated with the same barrage of catalogs, magazines, newspapers, and collateral that plague consumers. And according to statistics from the U.S. Postal Service, more than 66 percent of these pieces have incomplete or incorrect addresses, leaving universities to determine what to do next. At many schools, particularly the big ones, this predicament can become a Herculean undertaking.
Yet, the problem of poor addressing isn’t just about waste; it eats up man hours as well. First, mailroom workers must determine if the intended recipients still attend the school. If the recipients are in fact still enrolled, the workers must take the time to look up the right addresses and correct the labels. Granted, misaddressed mail for off-campus students is handled by the local post office, which can reduce the burden significantly. Still, according to Aldona Robbins, CFO at Intra-Mail Network, which specializes in helping schools with this problem, the chore of redirecting and delivering this mail on campus can tax mailrooms to the point of inefficiency.
“There are schools that literally spend days each week dealing with this,” says Robbins, who notes that such schools as the University of Houston (TX), Georgetown University (DC), and Washington University (MO) have turned to her firm for help with their junk-mail problems.
The solution focuses on ensuring addresses are accurate before they ever hit the campus mailroom. Senders transfer their address data to Intra-Mail, which uses proprietary software to match address lists to unique campus routing schemes, reducing undeliverable campus addressing and expediting delivery through campus mail centers. The company also converts massive unsorted commercial mail into presorted bundles. Within each bundle, IntraMail numerically sequences the mail according to a mail center’s delivery route. By the time on-campus mail carriers get the mail, it is accurate, sorted, and ready for them to deliver – without headaches.
Surprisingly, this service is free to participating schools. It is the senders – pharmaceutical companies, magazine publishers, retail/wholesale catalog companies and the like – that foot the bill; they are more than willing to pay to ensure that greater levels of their product information reach their intended audiences. Intra-Mail President Michael Sanders says his firm actually pays colleges a minimum of two cents for each piece of mail it successfully delivers. The economics behind the equation are simple: The more schools Intra-Mail can claim as customers, the more money the company can charge senders for the process of making sure their mailed pieces go where they want them to go.
For the sender clients, and for higher ed administrators, the benefits are indisputable: “Would you rather have 1,000 pieces come in, 40 percent of which are for people who are no longer there,” asks Sanders, “or would you rather have 600 pieces come in, almost all of them addressed perfectly? For colleges that have grappled with this problem for years, I’d say the answer is pretty clear.”
For Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being green. But across academia, colleges and universities are finding it easier – and more advantageous – than ever before. In the world of higher education as elsewhere, “green” refers to the adoption of responsible environmental practices. While this may not seem like a traditional component of auxiliary services, many officials say it’s part of an overarching drive toward sustainability – something which every Auxiliary Services department should strive for. In fact, many “green” practices now fall under the auspices of campus Auxiliary Services departments, and many require the intelligent use of technology. What’s more, these efforts don’t just facilitate conservation; they can save campus dollars as well, lowering operational outlay by saving energy costs, for instance.
Green programs are wide-ranging and include efforts such as more effective recycling, better management of energy consumption, and the implementation of construction certified by the US Green Building Council, the body that has established worldwide standards (known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Green Building Rating System) for this kind of thing. In the state of Pennsylvania, for instance, Pittsburgh-based WTW Architects has helped a number of colleges and universities launch projects that fall into the green category. Hank Colker, a principal with the firm, says these efforts are a “combination of common sense and high technology,” and notes that a sampling of their clients and projects includes:
- Carnegie Mellon University, at which the new Posner Center features a “green” roof (the roof space is “greened” by a full garden), as well as sophisticated mechanical and lighting systems to protect the center’s rare book collections.
- Pennsylvania State University, where a new building in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture showcases natural lighting (skylights, window walls, etc.).
- California University of Pennsylvania, which is replacing some residence halls with new facilities that have geothermal heating and cooling systems.
- Slippery Rock University, where a project to build seven new residence halls may be one of the largest LEEDcertified student housing projects in the world.
- Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where special contractors have been hired to demolish out-of-date buildings and recycle them as clean landfill.
Clean Up Your Act—and Monitor It
Outside of Pennsylvania, the University of Vermont also has turned to WTW to build a new, LEED-certified structure, the Dudley H. Davis Student Center, which will utilize local brick and slate products and incorporate a “green” roof over the loading dock. It will also boast “smart” lighting systems that shut off when a room is unoccupied, and natural (not conventional air-condition/heat) ventilation systems to save energy in heating and cooling. Other planned design features are intended to extend environmental conservation even further – there will be ample bike storage, and every floor will have a full bathroom with shower for cyclists who need to freshen up, in the hopes that more students will ride their bicycles to campus and leave their cars at home.
University officials aren’t being bashful about these advancements: The school plans to construct the lobby around a giant computer that will display statistics on the building’s energy consumption. The monitor will convey how much water the new student center is using, as well as how many carcinogens and other pollutants it is pumping into the atmosphere. Patty Eldred, director of auxiliary services for the school’s Administrative and Facility Services department, says this computer will be a great tool for learning, and adds that perhaps the biggest benefit of this construction is the school’s ability to integrate sustainability into the curriculum as a whole.
“We’ve always been a state that has taken a look at the impact we create on the environment,” she says. “This is a good way to organize the way you live your life, and we’re not only practicing it, but we’ll teach it, too.”
Matt Villano is senior contributing editor of Campus Technology.