Sacrificing studies for software

A massive new management information platform is costing Chico State—and its students—dearly

Senior liberal-arts major Jennifer Hopper says she is “frustrated” by the difficulty of obtaining the classes she needs to graduate. She was surprised to learn that a huge new software program was siphoning off millions of dollars that otherwise would go to hiring teachers.

Senior liberal-arts major Jennifer Hopper says she is “frustrated” by the difficulty of obtaining the classes she needs to graduate. She was surprised to learn that a huge new software program was siphoning off millions of dollars that otherwise would go to hiring teachers.

photo by Tom Angel

“The situation is really, really frustrating.”

Those were the words used by Jennifer Hopper, a 21-year-old, self-supporting senior liberal-studies major and music minor from Redding, to describe her experience over the past three and a half years trying to get the classes she needs at Chico State University.

It’s been especially tough this semester. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get signed for more than nine units. Finally, on Sept. 25—the fifth week of the semester—the instructor of a required upper-division class decided to let her enroll. She had a seat in the already-full class and had attended since the first day, taking all the quizzes and participating in class activity.

Not being signed up for 12 units, the minimum full-time-study load, meant Hopper’s Sierra Pacific Industries four-year scholarship went on hold, and she had to pay out of pocket for $400 worth of books and $1,100 in tuition. Since she is self-supporting, these unplanned expenses meant more in student loans, which she said totaled $5,000 through the end of last year. She doesn’t look forward to paying off the debt that will surely rise by several thousand dollars before she’s finished.

Hopper worked 20 hours per week during her freshman and sophomore years but has cranked up to 30 hours per week since then, still managing all A and B grades through three years except for two Cs. She’s looking to graduate in maybe four and a half years, although that doesn’t include finishing her teaching credential work and her year of student teaching. Meanwhile, the tab keeps running up, while hard-to-get classes have put her life on hold.

“I don’t want to come off as an oh-poor-me sympathy story. I’m talking about a real problem,” Hopper said. “I know it’s a lot more [students] than me—a lot more.” There are 10 or 11 Chico State students where she works, she said, and they nearly all complain about the class situation.

What Hopper didn’t realize was that a good part of the reason she had such a hard time getting classes this semester was because the university has embarked on one of its biggest projects ever, installation of a huge and sophisticated new computer software platform called the Common (or Collaborative) Management System (CMS).

The project, created by PeopleSoft Inc. to assist with nearly all management tasks from accounting and personnel to student admissions and grading, will link all 23 state university campuses. Total cost: $400 million over the next five years. Chico State’s share: at least $15 million.

The problem—besides the sheer complexity of installing and learning to use such a complex system—is that the state Legislature has not allocated special funds to pay for it. As a result, each campus must squeeze its “assessment” out of its regular budget, 80 percent of it from instructional funds. The CMS budget at Chico State this year calls for a $2.8 million bite, with $2.24 million of it coming out of instructional money—this at a time when the university has experienced an unexpected 1,000-student fall semester enrollment bulge.

The provost’s office is on record as saying that an increase of 1,000 full-time students would require 50 new full-time faculty members. The $2.24 million of instructional funds would go a long way toward paying for that number of new hires—if the money were available. Unfortunately, it’s not.

When Chico State University President Manuel Esteban delivered his convocation speech to the faculty opening the new academic year last Aug. 23, he touched briefly on the CMS project and said it would mean “a lot of sacrifice by a lot of people.”

Asked later to identify the people who would do the sacrificing, Esteban replied they would be mostly Chico State technical staff responsible for implementing the system because they must literally work two jobs, their regular job plus a new one at CMS. Since their union contract does not define a minimum or maximum workweek, they must put in many overtime hours not for money but for compensating time off when it’s available. Sixty people are so involved at present in the new CMS quarters in the Meriam Library.

What about the students and the big sacrifice they must make? Esteban gave a forthright answer:

“Look, any time you have $2.8 million you are setting aside for a project, no matter how useful or needed or important the project is, that’s money that could be spent some other way.”

Asked if “some other way” meant instructors and classes, Esteban said, “Right. That money would normally go to hiring new faculty, and that’s going to happen once CMS is implemented and money is released.”

Esteban said that every effort has been made by deans and department chairs to individually counsel with students who say they must have certain closed classes for graduation to determine their status so they can be shoehorned if possible into already full classes or into some newly opened sections. “To the degree we have been able to mitigate this situation, we have been doing so,” Esteban said.

Provost Scott McNall said a lot of new classes had been created this autumn insofar as qualified part-time instructors could be found. That’s a problem because the small, shallow local talent pool can’t plug all holes in all disciplines. That task would be easier in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, where all manner of talent abounds.

David Ernst, assistant vice-chancellor for information technology, put CMS in perspective when he said, “A project of this magnitude is going to challenge the CSU as it has never been challenged before.” To avoid chaos, he added, challenges must be met as they arise along the way, which is what is going on now.

The chancellor’s representative said he had tried but failed this year to secure an appropriation for the project from the state Legislature.

For her part, Jennifer Hopper came to Chico State with the reasonable idea of getting her degree in four years so she could move on with her life and also hold down the student loan debt load. It didn’t work out that way.

Although she got all 18 units of classes she wanted during the first semester of her freshman year because of new-freshman preference, the class availability thing has gone downhill ever since. The following semester she finally gathered the desired 18 units after her first experience with adding classes.

She came up with 15 units—all she could get—both terms of her sophomore year. Then came her junior year and two semesters of 12 units each, again all she could scrape up through adding. The present bleak first semester of her senior year has truly tested her patience.

“I thought it would be easier to get classes the farther I went along, but it got harder instead. It seems like it’s backwards,” Hopper said. “It’s so frustrating because there is this big demand for teachers in California. It’s really sad when people are trying so hard to better themselves. It tweaks you.”

Hopper expressed surprise when told about the Common Management System and how it siphons off instructional money. She thought it was “really sad” because she couldn’t see the big administrative project contributing anything to her education.

The reality that the campus-borne cost of CMS is negatively affecting the educational mission of the university also troubles Amber Johnsen, the Chico State student body president, who emphasizes, however, that Esteban is not to blame because he is only following orders from the CSU Chancellor’s Office in Long Beach.

“The No. 1 complaint of students this fall is that they have not been able to get the classes they need. Students are unaware—totally oblivious—of the fact that a big part of the reason they have been unable to get classes is that the money is being spent elsewhere,” Johnsen said. “It’s not right that students have to wait for classes, and it’s mismanagement of money. It’s not right because it [CMS] does not in any way translate into a better education for students.”

Students don’t realize, she continued, that the gargantuan administrative project is being funded by tax money and by tuition and fees. Nor are they aware that, because of it, everything students pay for on campus—she cited the increases in health service and on-campus housing as examples—costs more.

Phyllis Weddington is an outside expert hired—at $105,000 a year—to direct installation of the PeopleSoft program. The program is expected to cost Chico State $15 million over five years, money that will come from the operational budget, 80 percent from instruction.

Photo by Tom Angel

The main purpose of being at Chico State is to get an education, Johnsen said, adding that students pay 30 to 40 percent of the cost of their own education through tuition and fees. “If we are not getting the classes we need, are we getting our money’s worth for that 30 to 40 percent? I think not.”

Across the board, students are not being treated right, she added, and they are the customers who keep the university in business. She agreed with the suggested analogy that if Wal-Mart treated its customers the way Chico State treats its student customers, the huge chain store would soon go bankrupt. She offered a second analogy: That if visitors to Disneyland had to stand in long lines but still could not get on the rides, they might demand their money back and not return to the theme park.

The student body leader said that when she first came to Chico State five years ago, classes were small to moderate in size. Students had a good opportunity to get to know their professors and spend time with them, which is too often not the case anymore.

Where benefits to the students are concerned, Assistant Vice-Chancellor Ernst said the CMS system “was never touted as providing better teaching and education.” Instead, it seeks to provide better and more efficient services to the students and faculty. Ernst acknowledged that no return-on-investment or cost-effectiveness analyses had been done for CMS.

Further, the enrollment bulge this autumn has brought the campus to 14,800 full-time students, said McNall, which is 800 above the long-accepted ceiling of 14,000, but he added that no plans exist for new buildings or classrooms. Over-enrollment earns new money from the Chancellor’s Office, but new full-time faculty hires from the funds mostly keep pace with retirements.

Esteban said in an August campus publication that “strong and unanticipated growth will tax our facilities.” The president revealed that the chancellor now wants 15,000 full-time students at Chico. He added that if the campus seeks to earn state money to renovate and expand existing buildings, it would first have to demonstrate need by cramming another 1,500 full-time students onto the campus in the next 10 to 15 years. That means years of many students milling around in search of unavailable classes.

Asked if the university is fully using its plant by offering classes at unpopular times such as 6 p.m., 7 a.m., or even Friday nights or Saturday mornings, McNall said Chico State is an in-residence school where students would not attend such classes. He might have added that tenured faculty would not want to teach them, although such scheduling has been used at some big-city commuter campuses.

In an ironic twist, the administration has told the Associated Students that it needs to pony up money to help fund CMS, the program that’s taking money needed for their education. Understandably, the pay-up request—first issued to the A.S. last year—has so far gone nowhere. This year another request came in from the administration for an unnamed amount of money, Johnsen said, but Esteban followed up after a couple of weeks by saying the A.S. need not pay this year but would have to pay next year.

Last year the A.S. met the original request for an unnamed amount of funds with an A.S. Board of Directors resolution that concluded: “The Associated Students will not support the CMS system financially or accept any mandate requiring it to implement CMS.”

In the “whereas” section of the resolution, the A.S. in effect stated:

· that the A.S. was an independent California corporate structure that had, and would honor, a 1999 contract with Chico State running to 2004 to pay $500,000 per year to support the university’s “academic mission";

· that the A.S. had “no common interest in incorporating into the CMS system"; and

· that it would be illegal for Chico State or the CSU to “interfere in the internal management decisions” of the A.S. corporation by trying to impose a mandate to “implement or financially support CMS.”

Queried about the standoff, McNall said, “It is appropriate for anyone who benefits from the CMS system to help support it.” By that he meant that the A.S., the University Foundation and the Research Foundation are all so-called “auxiliary organizations” under state law, and that they would all run on CMS when it is implemented. Presumably Esteban meant that the A.S. would have to pay next year because by then the financial-affairs module—the first of several CMS modules—is scheduled to be in place.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen next year when a new student body president and Board of Directors take over. Because the A.S. legal structure is unique among student body organizations on the 23 CSU campuses, a forceful attempt by the administration to pierce the A.S. corporate armor to extract money over and above that provided for in the contract presently in force could produce a court test and probably a public-relations disaster for the university.

The CMS project began in 1996, when the Chancellor’s Office issued an order that each of the 23 campuses would adopt the same computer software to handle core university business applications in three so-called modules: financial accounting and management, payroll and human resources, and student services.

The total cost for technology services in the CSU of the seven-year formative period—the last two and the coming five—would be $800 million to $1 billion, with $400 million of that going for CMS, Ernst said. So far everything is on schedule and within budget, he added.

About $56 million over the five-year development span will go to the centralized CSU statewide outsourced Unisys data processing center in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the PeopleSoft operating software and hardware (computer) operation support services are located. For example, if Chico State wanted a payroll task performed, it would access the Unisys data center via its own “client” software, communicate the task request, and receive the task performance answer on a dedicated connection.

The existing or so-called “legacy” system, which the Chancellor’s Office considers “outdated, unworkable, and costly,” soaks up $100 million in taxpayer money a year systemwide to run, and it continues to operate side by side with the new state-of-the-art technology as it is put in place until full transition takes place five years from now.

According to 1999 Chancellor’s Office literature, the student services component or module would include timely information on admission requirements, on-line admission and checking of admission status, electronic grade reporting and course transcripts, electronic access to financial-aid information and status, timely grad checks, and instantaneous information about course prerequisites, required reading, texts, and other materials along with links to vendors that would accommodate electronic purchases. Faculty would have tools and timely information to use in advising students.

Bids went out, and PeopleSoft won the contract, which was signed in 1998. Since then, work has continued apace. Phyllis Weddington, a software and computer expert who installed the PeopleSoft system at Central Washington University, is the resident project director and an outside hire. She came to the Chico State campus last December at a yearly salary of $105,000 to oversee operations.

A project manager hired off campus works under Weddington, but calls to Weddington seeking the manager’s name and salary were not returned.

After the system is up and running efficiently, Weddington and her manager could be cut. If not cut, they would represent a new layer of expensive management that would continue to drain money needed for the educational mission.

(The California Faculty Association, the union representing professors, last year expressed concern about diversion of money for what Beau Grosscup, the local union chief, called “an extraordinary buildup of campus administrators.” He also said, “The number of CSU administrators increased by more than 125 percent from 1975-76 to 1998-99. During the same period, the number of full-time … students grew by 16.8 percent and the number of faculty increased by approximately 6.8 percent. The impact of this diversion has meant an increase in class sizes and the cancellation of courses needed for many majors.")

Weddington said some of the people now in administration at Chico State would be “uncomfortable with the new system because they are uncomfortable with change. Also, some don’t endorse technology, but for the most part, those [administrators] involved will see the benefits” once the system is in place.

She added that the financial module should be up and running in initial form by next July 1 and the human-resources module the following December. Weddington also noted that the system could forecast an enrollment bulge such as surprised Chico State administrators this year, “if you want to use it that way.” The software, however, would not “sniff” e-mail.

Bill Post, director of Chico State’s Meriam Library and the local project sponsor, said “it is up to us,” meaning Chico State people, to make the big and complex project work. He noted that CMS money goes to three groups of people: outside hires, transfers on campus and consultants. Installing upgrade versions as required by the PeopleSoft contract will represent a continuing expense for consultants. That’s equivalent to, say, using Windows 95 but updating to Windows 98 when the later version came out.

To the extent that Chico people learn and adapt quickly to the system, the local group will rely less on outside consultants, PeopleSoft included, at $285 per hour. He said 42 companies are presently trying to get on the CSU consulting list.

“When everyone sees the benefits in a few years, nobody will remember the pain,” Post said.

That remains to be seen, of course.