Balk: Fewer locks would make dorms more welcoming

Tim Balk, Columnist

In order to get from the entrance of 1835 Hinman to my room on the second floor, I need to use my key four times: once to get in the front door, again moments later to reach the lobby, once more to get into the hall that my room is on and then a final time to get into my room (although, admittedly, the door to my room is often unlocked — don’t get any ideas, Hinmanites).

Although there’s no questioning that Northwestern dorms are and should be secure, I do think it’s worthwhile to question all the locks and the culture that they create. I remember getting locked in a staircase at Allison Hall as a wide-eyed, early first-quarter freshman. I still get locked in the wrong places at different dorms.

I honestly do not see the need for all the locks: locks to enter buildings, locks to enter staircases, locks to enter the hallways. And let’s be honest, NU’s campus is not exactly a crime hotbed. Yet, when I visit friends at Allison or Elder Hall and want to leave one floor to visit another, I need to factor in the lock problem.

The result of the excessive locks is not just that it makes it hard to get around. Sure, it’s annoying (and arguably dangerous) to have to stand outside of Willard Residential College in freezing weather, waiting for a friend to come let you in, but the bigger problem is that it’s a community buster. It makes people feel unwelcome in the residential halls, discourages students from visiting other floors in their own buildings when they need to bring their key to get to them and discourages the visiting of other dorms. It makes NU’s dorms feel a little bit less homey and a little bit more like prisons.

If you do visit another dorm, the logistical challenges dampen any inclination to move about the dorm and touch base with friends in the easy-going, collegiate way that one would hope for. This leads to the stifling of cultural values of openness, friendship and community spirit — all things that we as students, and I think the University itself, genuinely aspire to.

NU has a dorm problem. Students tend to move off-campus in large numbers after freshman year and in even larger numbers after sophomore and junior year. This leads to the division between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen. The North/South Campus dichotomy is a real problem as well. It makes NU feel more clique-y and divided than it actually is.

The school is making strides to keep sophomores on campus. In October, NU announced a long-term plan to institute a live-in requirement for sophomores as well as freshmen. This idea should help improve community, but another way to keep sophomores and older students on campus is to make the residence halls more welcoming.

Bigger rooms and better food would certainly help too (hey, I can dream), but the lock overload issue is an easier place to start. And addressing it could have a bigger impact on the social atmospheres at some residence halls than one might think.

Tim Balk is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to