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Business Officer Magazine
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A Shared-Service Approach to Campus Safety

Spotlight: Small Institutions, from "Business Briefs" department in March 2010 issue of Business Officer

By Paul Ominsky and Elizabeth Cahn

It's often smart to build on existing relationships. That's why Massachusetts' colleges Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Hampshire decided to leverage a long-standing consortium and combine our three institutions' public safety departments to save money and improve services. (The original consortium, Five Colleges Inc., also includes Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts–Amherst).

Originally driven by the need to contain costs, the public safety collaboration created opportunities for us to think outside the spatial boundary of each campus and imagine new ways of using our combined resources to do a better job at all three colleges.

The first step in the process, which occurred in 2003, was the sharing of one director of public safety between two institutions (Mount Holyoke and Smith), although the departments remained independent in other ways. In 2008, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke merged their two departments under one director. When that arrangement proved to be workable, Smith was brought into the group in 2009.

Scope and Savings

The plan involved four components: (1) create a central dispatch center, (2) streamline operations by sharing administrative staff, (3) reduce costs—especially overtime—for patrol, and (4) provide specialized services more effectively.

We estimated the first year's collective savings to be at least $300,000, balanced against one major expense—costs associated with setting up the new central dispatch center. The sources of expense reduction included:

Administrative costs. We now have one director for the collaborative rather than one director for each of the three campuses. The director supervises three associate directors; each knows the entire system but retains responsibility for operations on his or her particular campus.

Patrol officers work primarily on one campus, while command staff can cover one or more campuses at a time as needed. This allows the department to share staff across campuses, providing internal mutual aid to cover large events and respond to emergencies.

Centralizing dispatch services on one campus. This change provided immediate cost reductions for labor. Instead of one dispatcher on duty on each campus 24/7, two dispatchers now work together to handle all three campuses.

Losses and Gains

The transition to a shared public safety department did not come without growing pains. Students noted the loss of their local dispatch office, and other campus departments resisted providing services that local dispatch used to cover, such as taking in lost-and-found items and handing out keys. As in most transitions that involve changes for staff, you can expect employee morale to be compromised for a while.

Despite some negative dynamics, other benefits evolved. For example, the patrol staffs from all three departments decided to affiliate with the same union, enabling negotiation of a single new contract. At the same time, we transitioned all staff members to become employees of Mount Holyoke College, allowing for consistency in policies, procedures, pay, and benefits.

The combined department structure also enables the sharing of IT, detective, outreach coordinator, and trainer services across all campuses. This type of organization, notes Mary Jo Maydew, vice president of finance and administration at Mount Holyoke College, “requires a focused supervisory group that also has a clear understanding of the differences between the campuses and can deliver flexible responses depending on the campus.”

SUBMITTED BY Paul Ominsky, director of public safety, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey (formerly of Mount Holyoke College); and Elizabeth Cahn, planning and community outreach coordinator, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts

FOR MORE on consortia, see "All for One, One for All" in the February 2010 issue of Business Officer. FOR MORE on campus safety and security, see "Ever Ready" in the November 2009 issue of Business Officer.