Critiquing CMS

As the CSU’s high-tech information management system eases on line, critics await cost analysis

PROJECT CMS <br>Project Manager Linda Post helps oversee the CMS implementation team at Chico State University. The group meets at least once a week to get updates and compare notes.

Project Manager Linda Post helps oversee the CMS implementation team at Chico State University. The group meets at least once a week to get updates and compare notes.

Photo by Tom Angel

You must remember this: Six years ago, the computer deal du jour was the California Educational Technology Initiative (CETI), a $500,000 public-private venture that would have seen the CSU partner with GTE, Fujitsu, Hughes Corporation and Microsoft. But it fell apart as it became apparent that the corporations wanted to dictate what software the campuses could use.

In a smallish room on the third floor of the Meriam Library, Chico State University computer experts convert accounting codes, load tables of numbers and work on scores of other high-tech tasks that make the Matthew Broderick flick War Games seem positively 19th century.

California State University Chancellor Charles Reed has directed each of the system’s 23 campuses to implement the Common Management System, or CMS—integrated, system-wide computer software that will let campuses manage everything from student records to employee payroll.

And, indeed, it sounds impressive: As summer waned at Chico State University, the CMS team’s project room was abuzz with activity. A couple of weeks earlier, the school had “gone live” with an element of the financial module, meaning that numbering structures were successfully coordinated with the Chancellor’s Office, so employees could get paid on Aug. 1. Chico State President Manuel Esteban sent out a congratulatory e-mail.

But as state leaders increasingly look to CSU campuses as a source of budget cuts—Chico State alone has been asked to trim $4.5 million this year, even as it’s paying nearly $2 million toward CMS—more and more people are wondering: Is it worth it? Union leaders and student representatives point out that every dollar that goes toward CMS means a dollar less for things like faculty salaries, which translates to fewer classes for students and a longer road to graduation.

Last spring, critics won the ear of state legislators, who ordered a $185,000 audit of CMS, due out later this year.

CMS “is another Chancellor Reed mandate” that will take money away from needs such as hiring new professors and offering adequate course sections, said Beau Grosscup, president of Chico State’s chapter of the California Faculty Association.

“The fact is that this is a very expensive system with, apparently, a lot of problems,” he said. Grosscup predicts CMS will end up costing more than was budgeted and is bothered that, when he brought up the idea of postponing implementation until the budget crisis wanes, “there was a tremendous resistance to that.”

Among the most vocal opponents of CMS has been Chico State’s Associated Students, which already ponies up $500,000 a year to support the university’s “academic mission.” While some state universities are covering the CMS costs for its nonprofit auxiliary organizations, Chico State is not and has told the A.S., University Foundation and Research Foundation that they must contribute as well. In 2000, the A.S. Governmental Affairs Committee passed a resolution vowing not to pay toward CMS. Last December, student leaders directed A.S. staff to remove from the budget $25,000 a year that had cautiously been placed there in case the university presses the matter.

A.S. President Jimmy Reed said that to force an independent organization to pay into a system it doesn’t even want amounts to an “unfunded mandate,” and the A.S. will fight it in court if necessary. “They’re definitely trying to subsidize the cost to the university by going to the university auxiliaries.”

“They’re spending a lot of time and money on this project,” Reed said. “Especially right now during the budget crunch.”

"[The A.S.] has a system already. It works fine. We have no use for [CMS]. … The A.S. won’t benefit. Our services and programs won’t benefit in any way by having CMS, and we’re here for the students.”

Phyllis Weddington, who was hired in December 2000 as Chico State’s CMS project director, said that the closer Chico State gets to full implementation, the clearer the system’s benefits will be. In 2005, the most visible element of CMS—the student module—will be implemented

“It will definitely be more dynamic as we get more of the campus involved,” she said. “When we get the student piece, that is where the campus is going to wake up to there’s really a new system about.” In the meantime, “People expect it to do their laundry. They have these high expectations because they don’t understand what we’re dealing with. And the more computer literate they are, the higher their expectations get.”

As with all tech-types, Weddington said, “If we do our job well, people won’t know what we do.”

Colleen Bentley-Adler, Chancellor’s Office spokesperson, said the CSU had been spending $100,000 a year to maintain the patchwork of old and makeshift information systems the different campuses had in place, and ultimately CMS will be much cheaper annually.

The cost to get the 23 CSU campuses up and running with CMS was initially estimated as $400 million over five years, with Chico State putting in around $15 million.

“It’s a large amount of money but we have kept it right on budget,” said Bentley-Adler, who welcomes the legislative audit. “We worked a really good deal with PeopleSoft to do this.”

In addition, she said, “If you don’t spend it, you don’t have those connections among campuses.”

The move toward CMS started relatively quietly four years ago, when the CSU signed a contract with Pleasanton-based PeopleSoft, a private software development company that recently took a beating in the stock market. In 1998, the CSU had been on the verge of signing with another vendor but pulled out at the last minute.

But it wasn’t until people started seeing the high initial cost of the system that complaints were widely heard. The CFA and the California State Employees Association, the unions that represent CSU faculty and staff, spoke against the expense of the system and the added layer of administration that comes with it.

Mary Ann Bailey-Breed, senior labor relations representative for CSEA, said the union’s members are being asked to learn a new system that is “anything but user-friendly.” She said CMS is complicated and time-consuming, and “you have to go through incredible [steps] to get access to anybody.”

A CSEA researcher tallied a list of problems reported by schools elsewhere in the nation that converted to PeopleSoft systems. “There were all these glitches, and it’s not just minor,” Bailey-Breed said.

The worst experience was at Cleveland State University, where an inability of the PeopleSoft system to convert academic quarters to semesters reportedly quadrupled the cost of installing the software. At Northwestern University, students were unable to register, and financial aid payments were delayed, the Associated Press reported.

Bentley-Adler said the CSU is well aware of the problems other campuses had with PeopleSoft systems. “That’s why it took us about two years to even contract with PeopleSoft,” she said. But, “it was [the troubled campuses'] management [that was at fault]. It wasn’t the system. We really looked into it.”

The CSEA is also peeved that the Unisys data processing center that forms the hub for PeopleSoft’s CMS is in Salt Lake City, Utah. “It’s a labor issue,” Bailey-Breed said. “Keeping the work here in California is important to us.”

Bentley-Adler said Utah is a seismically safe place for such a center, and the CSU will eventually wean itself off outside consultants as employees come to understand the system.

Weddington said that, so far, things have been running smoothly. When one campus runs into a glitch, it can call another that implemented that particular element of the system in an earlier “phase.”

“There’s a really tight network of different teams,” she said. The teams trade computer codes, hold video conferences and get e-mail tips. Chico State chose to be one of the later campuses to implement CMS, in part so, “We could let them work out the bugs and learn from their mistakes.”

Reed said that for now the student organization and the university have agreed to disagree. At the last University Budget Committee meeting of the 2001-02 school year, then-A.S. President Amber Johnsen asked the administration to stop wasting paper sending her office updates on CMS.

“It’s kind of a sensitive subject whenever the university brings it up," Reed said. "We’re hoping again that nothing will be asked of the A.S. this year."