Wednesday, March 20, 2013

CUNY First Computer System to Aid Administrative Control over Colleges at the Expense of Efficiency and Effectiveness

Guest Post
Every once in a while I get a question, either privately or in a department meeting, regarding CUNYFirst. Here is what I know of CUNYFirst, based on a few years of working with the project as a "training liaison" (which is a fancy term for room-scheduler).

(1) The idea of CUNYFirst is a good one: to have a unified, integrated "enterprise"-scale system that encompasses all university/campus business processes. Such a system could, in principle at least, have saved a lot of expenditure on maintaining dozens of disparate, redundant, barely cooperating third-party systems. Such a system could have offered information access that would have benefited the administration, the staff, the faculty, and students.

(2) CUNY Central's motives in pursuing CUNYFirst were dominated by an agenda that has nothing to do with such benefits however. Rather, CUNY Central sought absolute control over all college activity, including curriculum. Think of it: whoever controls the catalog, the bulletin, the transcripts, and the apparatus in general effectively controls curriculum. CUNYFirst will be part of the arsenal by which CUNY Central shoves Pathways down our throat. CUNY Central also sought the knowledge of and therefore access to any discretionary funds that the colleges may have.

(3) The negotiations that were the run-up to the purchase of CUNYFirst were a travesty. The project required an expenditure of up to a billion dollars to do it right. CUNY Central offered far less. All but one of the bidders dropped out as a result: the project could not be done properly with what CUNY offered. Oracle-PeopleSoft did not drop out. However they warned CUNY that for that level of funding, they could not, would not CUSTOMIZE: they would only CONFIGURE.

CUNY Central was so eager to have a centralized MIS tool to use for its own centralizing, corporatizing agenda, that it totally ignored the implications of the Oracle "configure-only" limitation: business processes would have to be made to fit Oracle, not vice versa. Capabilities that we now have will vanish. The staff, the faculty, the students would just have to "adjust" (the technical term being "suck it up").

(4) And thus, CUNY has spent about $600 million dollars on a system that makes things worse everywhere it goes. The actual cost far exceeds the $600 million dollars that go to Oracle. Because processes are now much more inefficient, more people have to be hired to do tasks that were formerly automated.

Unknown and unseen to most faculty has been the toll that this takes on HEOs and to some extent clericals -- the people who actually make the university run. (No, professor colleagues, you are important but you do NOT make the university run-- that is another discussion.)

HEOs have been forced to put in all sorts of extra hours without compensation. Some of this is transitional, some of it is systemic.

(5) CUNYFirst does work. It just works badly.
• The interface is laughable: It looks like an early-90s update of 3270 bi-synch technology. Web 2.0? Ha. Not even Web 1.0.
• Because CUNY wouldn't pay for customization, we had to renumber our courses. This is just one of many, less visible to faculty, changes that CUNYFirst has forced.
• The security model is totally inappropriate for CUNY: we will have work-study students performing tasks that require vast permissions, thus allowing them to access data of other students.
• HR has had to struggle with the "problem" of an individual being a grad student enrolled in one campus serving as an instructor at another campus and having a part-time office job in a third. GM and Apple don't work that way. But CUNY does.

(6) We at Brooklyn College (and other "Wave 3" campuses) WILL adjust. I know people in other schools (in earlier "waves") who have. We will suffer more than they have because Brooklyn College has had the best add-on systems (for scheduling, grade reporting, etc) of the university. Many of these will now go away.

(7) I witnessed some of the early testing. It was done by following a test script that the vendor provided. As it failed multiple times, an engineer from Oracle would run to the next room to adjust something and then the testers would re-try. I've heard though that they've improved this process somewhat.

(9) Have you read all the way to this? Must be a slow day for you. Well, the thing to keep in mind is that no matter how bad CUNYFirst is for YOU, CUNYFirst is a success for CUNYCentral -- see point (2).
David Arnow
Computer and Information Science
Brooklyn College

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