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As much as $2 million worth of equipment might be missing from the University at Buffalo, the state comptroller's office says.

UB says the figure is wrong, but university officials acknowledge that they face a nightmarish task in protecting the many buildings that are open nearly 24 hours a day.

Two cases in point:

Iranian engineering student Afshar Sadaghiany, 26, accused of masterminding the theft of $70,000 worth of computer equipment from UB, was arrested loading a hatchback vehicle at the North Campus with $8,500 of university-owned items. On Jan. 17, Erie County Judge Rose D. LaMendola put Sadaghiany on probation for five years and warned him that his crime was "not a schoolboy prank."

Public-safety officers arrested David C. Muller, 26, of Grand Island, on Jan. 22 in a separate series of thefts at UB. About $4,000 worth of office equipment was taken from the university. Muller's alleged accomplice, Duane Sawyer, 24, was a janitor at the North Campus.

The campus public-safety force is "really hampered," said Leonard F. Snyder, UB's associate vice president and controller.

"Imagine you're a homeowner who goes to the Elma Police Department to report a rash of thefts you've experienced, and it comes out during the discussion that you're basically leaving your doors open all the time," Snyder said.

With classrooms operating from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., professors and graduate students popping in and out of campus buildings at odd hours, and the cleaning staff clocking in at midnight, Snyder's analogy is no exaggeration.

He recently instituted a policy instructing public-safety officers to stop and question anyone seen carrying equipment on campus.

University officials say they do not like the idea of restricting access, but they are increasingly being forced to switch to security methods such as card keys to get a better handle on the people and items that go in and out of campus buildings.

"I'm not sure how much more you can tighten up, without greatly reducing access," said Robert J. Wagner, vice president of university services.

Still, expensive items disappear.

In December, State Comptroller Edward V. Regan came down hard on all 64 public colleges and universities in the State University of New York system.

Regan reported that SUNY staff members have a tendency to distribute building keys like candy. And he said campus inventory officials, although they have been warned repeatedly, continue to be sloppy about cataloging and keeping track of equipment.

After a random check at seven campuses, Regan's auditors concluded that $11 million to $54 million worth of equipment is now missing from SUNY's $572 million equipment stockpile.

"We have reported on these conditions in numerous audits, but SUNY officials have allowed this to continue," Regan said. "We believe SUNY officials must finally acknowledge that they have a serious problem and do something about it."

A large research university such as UB, full of sophisticated computer and laboratory equipment, is certainly not exempt from the problem.

Two separate audits by Regan's office -- one in 1984 and one released in October 1989 -- were critical of the university's equipment-control procedures. The 1989 report showed that UB owned a
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total of 104,574 pieces of equipment costing $128 million -- and with a replacement value of $219 million -- in February 1988.

As of Dec. 31, 1987, according to that same report, UB could not account for 1,700 pieces -- nearly $2 million worth -- of equipment.

The report concluded that "a substantial amount of university equipment may be either missing or misplaced, and equipment inventory records are inadequate" at UB.

But Snyder said there are problems with the comptroller's methodology in arriving at the $2 million figure.

Just because an item is missing does not automatically mean it was stolen, he said. Most of the equipment that Regan's auditors noted as missing was later located in other rooms or buildings on campus, he said.

Nonetheless, Snyder acknowledged, equipment does disappear -- particularly computers and other items with resale value. Fax machines and answering machines are among the current favorites of thieves, according the Leon E. Griffin, director of campus public safety.

On the other hand, specialized lab equipment is unique and cannot be resold as easily, he said, so it is generally safer.

Reported thefts on state university campuses have increased by more than 27 percent since 1985, and many of those thefts occurred without forced entry, meaning that doors or windows were left open or keys were used.

Four of seven state campuses the comptroller's office checked last fall could not say how many building keys had not been returned after issue. Binghamton -- which has 1,200 employees and 12,500 students -- did not know the whereabouts of about 50,000 keys. Albany had more than 10,500 such keys.

The equipment thefts at UB involving Sadaghiany and the alleged thefts involving Muller and Sawyer were all facilitated by the use of keys.

Snyder did not know the number of keys outstanding at UB, but he acknowledged that control of the keys is a security loophole. "I'm comfortable saying that key control is a problem and that the best solution is getting away from a key system," he said.

Snyder said he wrote to every academic department several months ago, emphasizing the need to secure computer equipment -- that is, affixing it to work surfaces in such a way that it cannot be easily removed.

A universitywide committee that is currently examining the question of access, security and a possible move toward a "coordinated card system" -- a single card issued to students and faculty that would permit them access only to the buildings and services they are entitled to use.

In addition, new buildings to be constructed on campus probably would make use of card keys, Snyder said. A card system goes into effect this semester at the UB Medical School.

"I certainly have no objection to card keys," said Maggie S. Wright, assistant dean for student affairs, who worries about loiterers she sometimes spots at the medical school. "It's for our safety, too. We are living in different times."

As the traditional openness of the academic environment constricts, there is frustration that the perpetrators who have made tightened security necessary sometimes receive light punishment when they are caught.

Sadaghiany's thefts, disrupted the education of a great many students and created considerable inconvenience, said Griffin, who views the Iranian's probation as a mere slap on the wrist.

"Penalties need to be strongly applied," Snyder said. "If the penalties are removed or doled out in a way that is not significant, it doesn't assist us in our job of protecting the public's investment."

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