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Volume 9, Number 5: January 28, 2003

Saving Dollars and Making Sense of Common Systems

by Tammy Kempfert
TTT Editor


When University of Wisconsin administrators gathered in Eau Claire last month for the IT Summit, much of the agenda was devoted to discussing what our institutions have in common. Clearly, our 26 campuses—13 four-year universities, and 13 two-year colleges—share a commitment to instruction, research, and public service; however, the ways in which we carry out that commitment vary from campus to campus. For the purposes of this meeting, participants discussed the ever-emerging role technology plays in achieving our collective mission, and they continued deliberating the best means of equitably distributing resources to every UW institution. Their task has been complicated—and, at times, controversial.

Prior to 1997, institutions planned for and funded their own academic and administrative computing systems. At that time, however, officials had begun to realize the benefits of working together to bring students and faculty the latest information technology. It had become clear that the systems handling employee, student, and financial records needed to be updated. Some of the older administrative systems could no longer perform the tasks desired of them, and they were becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.

A few institutions purchased new systems on their own, only to discover the systems did not work the way they were intended or they would not integrate with other administrative systems, a key function for smooth campus operations. In other cases, the price of getting new systems running—including the purchase of hardware, installation, and training—would have excessively strained campus budgets. In response, says UW System Associate Vice President Ed Meachen, “I was asked, along with Marcia Bromberg, to take a leadership role in helping campuses avoid mistakes in purchasing common systems.” As a result, UW System contracted with PeopleSoft for its financial and student administrative software, and with Lawson for its human resource software (APBS: Appointments, Payroll, and Benefits System).

FASTAR, in Meachen’s view “the crown jewel of common systems,” is the central utility based in Madison that runs PeopleSoft student administrative software for testing patches, fixes and upgrades within the UW. In addition to other products and services such as data warehousing, FASTAR has taken on the ASP role for Colleges for their version of Peoplesoft student administration—and, just last week, UW-Parkside signed on to the program as well.

Employing the vast human resources and huge database at UW-Madison through FASTAR helped solve some of the widely publicized problems of the early versions of the PeopleSoft program. PeopleSoft can run its patches and fixes against an instance of the Madison database, eliminating the need for participating campuses to bring their systems down for testing or to create separate test systems. This worked so well, Meachen says, that PeopleSoft contracted with FASTAR to continue testing its applications.

On the academic side, the Common Systems Fund has subsidized the licensing of web course hosting products—currently Blackboard and WebCT—and made them available to campuses should they choose to use them. Due in part to a huge increase in the pricing structure of those products, the UW e-Learning System Task Force is in the process of looking for a single product, or suite of products, that could continue to serve our institutions. (See the October 2002 TTT article, “Preparing for Change: UW and the Quest for a New e-Learning System”.) Now in its evaluation phase, the task force has assessed vendor proposals and selected four products for faculty, student, and Learning Technology Development Council review. Placeware demonstrations will be held for faculty and students in February. (View the demonstration
on your campus.)

To date, UW System has helped most campuses purchase and implement most common systems. Adoption of administrative and academic common systems remains optional, with the exception of the APBS software, which is required. Acting together has allowed us to negotiate better prices from vendors than we could have reached if each campus purchased the technology on its own. To save on the additional costs of hiring trainers and support people on every campus, UW put together a core of experts—both external consultants and full-time staff—who travel around the state to meet institutional needs as they install the PeopleSoft applications. The program, called MILER, has pooled the knowledge of UW System staff as they work through the “gruesome process” of implementation, Meachen says.

John Berens, UW Oshkosh, says combining technology resources has “leveled the playing field” to serve his institution well. His campus has been able “to provide quality services to faculty and students beyond those it could have provided on its own,” he says. According to Berens, one “very effective” example includes the Endeavor common library system. Made possible by funds allocated in the last biennial budget, the automated system has made resources from every UW library available to every UW student. He also says that the successful implementation of the PeopleSoft student administrative system has provided Oshkosh students with web self-service, which will eventually be expanded to a portal.

But some administrators also note the disadvantages of common systems. They point out the difficulties of defining systemwide equity, much less achieving it. And as UW-Madison’s Annie Stunden puts it, “There’s some paranoia about loss of control. We worry about the unique needs of our institutions getting lost.” However, UW System Senior Vice President Cora Marrett says that campus autonomy need not be sacrificed. “Everybody should have a fundamental infrastructure, but how you use what you’ve got can vary,” she says.

The greatest risk of common systems, says Meachen, is the massive expense. "First, we can't always predict if a product will go out-of-date; and second, we can't know in advance if a company will be bought out or go out of business." What we can do, he says, is leverage the common infrastructure to exercise some control over the market and reduce the risk. Moreover, as Acting Vice President of Budget and Planning Andy Richards notes, both the Regents and the legislature tend to look favorably on common systems, viewing them as more efficient than separate systems.

A budget shortfall has officials concerned about the continued funding of common systems. Even when the unit cost for providing IT services decreases, the demand for the products has increased dramatically, far surpassing any savings. “We don’t need a change in our overarching mission, but we definitely need to work toward building a common understanding and a commitment, beyond what we’ve seen, to funding our IT priorities,” Marrett says. The Common Systems Review Group, appointed by President Katharine Lyall in 2001, is working with System Administration to reduce costs wherever possible. Some options include looking for external funding sources, implementing a chargeback to institutions for products and services, and waiting for products to mature before adopting them.

“It’s a vexing issue,” says Ed Meachen, “because savings are not easy to realize without the cost of quality.” In times of fiscal crisis, he says, campuses often look to cut funds externally rather than internally. But, he believes, “common systems is the last thing you should cut, instead of the first.”



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