IT Trends | Feature
Better Together: Small Schools Find Common Ground for IT Projects
Haverford and Bryn Mawr College recently completed three joint technology rollouts that aim to improve student services and save on costs.
Haverford and Bryn Mawr's joint IT implementation team (photo by Matt Gray)
Haverford and Bryn Mawr College, small liberal arts institutions situated only a mile apart in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, share more than a geographic location. Students at one school can take courses or even major at the other; in fact, one-third of students are taking courses on the other campus in any given semester. In addition, library systems have long been integrated and also link to nearby Swarthmore College.
And for the past few years, IT leaders at both campuses have been working together on three technology projects in an effort to create a seamless experience for students and save on costs: joint implementation of PeopleSoft Campus Solutions, Fischer Identity Management and two OneCard systems, CBORD and CCURE.
"This was a conscious effort by the boards and presidents to collaborate across campuses in technology," said Spencer Golden, interim co-CIO at Haverford. "We chose the things that we thought had the highest value to work on first, not the things that were easiest. In fact, these first projects were not easy at all," Golden added.
Bryn Mawr has a combined IT and library staff of 64, about half in traditional IT. Haverford has an IT staff of 24. The teams began an informal planning process for the joint implementation in late 2011. Called SEADS (Seamless Administrative Services), the effort was designed to create an easier way for community members to interact with data systems. In early 2012, they created a formal charter and signed off on the first three projects.
Golden from Haverford and Janet Scannell from Bryn Mawr (now chief technology officer at Carleton College in Minnesota) were project leaders from their respective colleges, with the CIOs at the time, Joseph Spadaro from Haverford and Elliott Shore from Bryn Mawr, working in close collaboration to frame the effort.
All three projects in the SEADS initiative had clear benefits:
- PeopleSoft Student: For registration, PeopleSoft enables one course catalog that displays courses from both campuses; it makes the registration process consistent for students from either campus for courses taken at either campus; and ends the need for manual and error-prone transfers of course registration data and grades. Faculty members are able to see rosters with all of their enrolled students represented from across the two colleges. For advising, it enables faculty on either campus to have access to student course and major information regardless of the student's home institution. Degree and major audit functions assist advisers and students in designing their program and courses for current semester registration and throughout a student's academic career.
- OneCard System: Allows all students to use their home campus OneCard to access buildings and services on either campus, including building access (if authorized); bookstore charges; dining center charges; café and coop charges; as well as payment of fees for parking or library charges.
- Fischer Identity Management: Provides both security and behind-the-scenes management of account and system provisioning and de-provisioning for individuals and their access to systems and data across both campuses. Also enables self-service password management for all community members.
Still, there were definitely challenges to the implementations. For one thing, each college was at a different state of sophistication in terms of the systems already in use. For example, Golden said, Haverford's existing ID management solution was an obsolete, patched-together system, whereas Bryn Mawr's was much more robust. Each campus required a different amount of work to put the new system in place, making coordination more challenging.
Another challenge was turnover among the executives. Gina Siesing, who joined Bryn Mawr as CIO and director of libraries in October 2013, noted that the teams delivered on the three projects despite changes in presidents at both schools, a change in CIO at Bryn Mawr and the departure of project leader Scannell from Bryn Mawr. "The projects went forward because [the teams] had a strong commitment to completing the projects successfully and a strong mandate," she said. (The new president at Bryn Mawr had previously been the provost and was deeply involved in the projects.)
Siesing noted that the challenges with the three projects revolved less around technology and more around business process integration. Because administrators stuck strictly to a rollout deadline, she felt, they lost some potential value by not working through some business process issues. In fact, as Golden recalled, the former president of Bryn Mawr initially set an earlier deadline for the joint implementation, and the project team needed to negotiate for a reasonable timeline, so the date was set back six months. "Even so, more time would have been helpful," he said. "We had a cross-institutional governance structure that worked well, but the challenge is to get the business process owners to drive decision-making and not IT."
Making It Work
To fund the efforts, one college sponsors the budget for a project and then the costs are reconciled later — an arrangement that sometimes made it difficult to negotiate with vendors. "It is a challenge that the consortial relationship between the two schools is in spirit only; there is no legal entity. That can be debilitating when negotiating contracts," Golden explained. For instance, the negotiations with Oracle were complex. "We just wanted to add Haverford to Bryn Mawr's instance of Peoplesoft," Golden said. After much negotiation, Oracle said it couldn't do that. "Eventually we had to work out a separate contract with Oracle for Haverford."
But overall, the vendors have been open to working with both schools together on projects. "In fact, we had a problem once with Fischer," Siesing recalled, "and as we worked through what had gone wrong, Haverford IT staffers were there with us. So the vendors understand we are united. They see us as a shared client."
With the initial three projects completed, the two colleges have pivoted slightly in their thinking about joint development work. "We have decided that in each area we are thinking about doing something new, we will do a thorough discovery of each campus's individual needs, and also study the costs and benefits of doing them together," said Siesing.
For instance, with scheduling software, Bryn Mawr is already using a system called EMS Campus and sees no need to move to a system that is shared by both campuses. But Haverford, which hasn't had as sophisticated a scheduling system, has chosen to begin deploying EMS Campus this summer, so the two campuses will be on the same platform and will be able to share data.
Both colleges use separate instances of the Moodle learning management system, but their Moodle teams work closely together. The campuses also are looking strategically at how to handle authentication in the same way across both campuses.
Other systems to be examined going forward include human resources and payroll. Bryn Mawr must move from its current Peoplesoft version soon. Haverford has used ADP for payroll and a custom legacy system for HR. Both schools are now doing the discovery work, together and separately, looking at their own needs and how they might procure systems together. "We will look at whether there is a joint planning process that makes sense," Siesing noted. "We don't have to be joined at the hip. But the vendors are open to working with us together."
Siesing and Golden said there hasn't been pressure from administrators to show that the joint IT projects are producing short-term cost savings. "The leaders started with the concept that making the systems seamless was the right thing to do and that it ought to be cost-effective in the long run," Golden said. Assessing total cost of ownership hasn't been a strong practice during these initial integration projects, Siesing added, but it is something she plans to do more of in the future as an essential component of planning.
Geographic closeness is key to making this work, the IT leaders stressed. "A key driver was that the students were already taking classes on both campuses," Golden explained, "so working to make that more seamless for them and faculty was the driving force."
Janet Scannell, who left Bryn Mawr for the CTO position at Carleton College, is now working on a similar joint IT project between Carleton and St. Olaf's College. The initiative, "Broadening the Bridge: Leading Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges Into a More Collaborative Future," received a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to advance collaborative efforts between the schools in library services, information technology, operations and academic programs.