Off campus, on the radar

Boston institutions look to boost safety by sharing students’ off-campus addresses with city
By: | Issue: August, 2014
July 28, 2014

A recent Boston Globe investigative series sparked national scrutiny of neighborhoods where some of the city’s college students are reportedly living in crowded, unsafe conditions. The allegations spawned a number of reactions from city officials.

The Boston City Council began an investigation into Northwestern University’s business relationship with Anwar N. Faisal, an area landlord who has reportedly made millions from squalid, illegal off-campus student housing. The Globe reported problems such as overcrowding, mold and rat infestation.

As of mid-July, Faisal had rescinded his offer to appear before a committee of the City Council, which was considering a subpoena to ensure the landlord’s attendance at another hearing.

Another result was a Mayor James J. Walsh firm request of Boston’s 20-plus higher education institutions in June to disclose the addresses of students living off-campus. The Globe reported all the colleges and universities complied, though Boston College questioned if the request was in line with federal privacy laws.

Gary Margolis, managing partner and co-founder of campus safety consultant Margolis Healy, says there are a variety of reasons why Boston’s universities are eager to comply with the city’s request. Though institutions have collaborated with the city on safety in the past, they weren’t always amenable to sharing this type of information.

“Universities want to be good neighbors, communities want universities to thrive and officials want things to go smoothly,” says Margolis. “At the same time, schools are recognizing there must be some impact on students who don’t live on campus.”

The collection of off-campus student information helps Boston police—who are working with limited resources—in several ways, Margolis says. “Universities have more information from students than ever for emergency situations, as students today are much more willing to sharing their information than they used to be. They’re more used to it.”

This exchange will prove to be beneficial to both parties, according to Margolis: The institutions will be privy to when an off-campus student is in trouble, and the city will be able to follow up to see how schools deal with troubled students.

Boston University already disclosed its off-campus student addresses to city officials after a 2013 house fire left one of its undergraduates dead and community activists demanding the disclosure to prevent further tragedy. The institution provided addresses where four or more students were listed, and campus officials will “continue to cooperate with the city as they work to address housing issues in the city,” says BU spokesperson Colin Riley.

The Globe series brought much-needed attention to housing safety, Riley says.

Riley also cites the situation as an opportunity for BU to “reinforce our efforts to educate students and parents about off-campus housing issues and the benefits of living on campus.”