First Thing First

CUNYfirst is the new generation of information technology that will revolutionize the underlying University business systems that serve students, faculty and staff. When completed, it will streamline the way almost everything is done, from registering for courses to hiring personnel and paying bills.

After months of preparations, training and testing, something akin to a new University "checkbook" went live in July, 2007. Managing revenues and expenditures, this new financial data storehouse collects and crunches current and new financial information and report back and forth among the University's 135 business units. And not a moment too soon: The new checkbook replaces a system designed and installed in the post-Watergate era.

Over the next two years, other compatible systems will gradually be added, such as procurement, budgeting, and cash management. Similar initiatives will be launched to manage human resource data, and eventually, student services.

The goal is to raise a more efficiently managed University to the ranks of a national leader in higher education for delivering core business services. "The CUNYfirst project provides a new, University-wide suite of policies, processes and information systems in order to streamline current practices and help us become more efficient," said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.

Many of the front-line managers and staff trained on these new systems this past summer at specially designed centers at four colleges throughout the city. All told, more than 6,000 employees will receive training on the new system in the coming years. By 2012, when the various phases of CUNYfirst are completed, the changes will affect the entire community of more than 35,000 faculty and staff and the 400,000 degree and continuing education students at 23 campuses.

"There has never been a University-wide project that has involved so many front-line people on a decision-making level," said Allan Dobrin, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer.

The five-year, $250 million CUNYfirst project ("first" stands for Fully Integrated Resources & Services Tool) will replace the "legacy" University-wide computer systems-best known by the abbreviations such as SIMS, the student records system, and CUPS, the human resources database. Others that vary from campus to campus will be replaced by Oracle Corp.'s PeopleSoft interactive processes, specially configured for CUNY needs.

CUNYfirst is "the first real test" of such computer processes implemented simultaneously across a large university, according to Brian Cohen, associate vice chancellor for technology and University chief information officer. "At CUNY, whatever we do, it's for all the university at the same time," said Cohen. "We're not doing it in pockets, except for the student module"-the student administrative services, which will be rolled out in four separate waves over four years. Bill Correnti, who has worked 29-plus years at CUNY, says he has witnessed big changes before, but "nothing like this." Now the executive director of budget and financial planning at Kingsborough Community College, Correnti is among those who helped configure the current financial processes at the University, but affirms that it's time for a change. "It's been a long time coming," he said. "We've been holding things together with spit and bubble gum. [CUNYfirst] will take a lot of training and it's going to provide a lot of new things to learn, but it can only have positive end results."

CUNYfirst is actually the project name for a generic computer-industry approach known as Enterprise Resource Planning. This approach uses software and processes that integrate three "pillars" or functions-finance, human resources and an organization's specific line of business -in CUNY's case, student services.

After more than 400 staff members working in finance are trained, the University will overhaul its hiring, personnel management and benefits administration systems. In the future, all job applications will be handled online. And within a year, the entire CUNY community will be given access to a new system to check out their benefits, pay information and employee records.

In the spring of 2009, CUNYfirst student systems that will assume functions such as the admissions process, registration and records management are scheduled to be configured for Queens College and Queensborough Community College. The systems will be rolled out on other campuses in three successive waves, until completion in 2012.

"We want to be able to provide a set of tools for students, faculty, staff and administrators to navigate the system," said Ronald Spalter, deputy chief operating officer. For example, if a student at Hunter College wanted to take a class at Baruch College, he or she would be able to go online and register for the course. But setting up an orderly process to manage this huge transition has not been easy. Each campus has assembled a team of CUNYfirst liaisons and experts who are responsible for managing project tasks, identifying problems and gaps that need fixing in current systems and helping prepare people for change.

Kingsborough's Correnti, for example, was part of a University-wide group of about 20 staff members who received early training to help smooth the way for change. Though the checkbook system went "live" this past summer, Correnti and others will continue reviewing it for about a year (You can track the progress of CUNYfirst by visiting the project's website, http://first.cuny.edu).

"The whole education process to get a 35,000-member community ready for this activity is transformational in some ways," Spalter said. "It's beyond what we've ever done. We're going to have to train 6,000 staff members and we want to do it in the most humane way possible. These are people who have been responsible for our success. It's a matter of engaging and encouraging them, doing everything possible to help them understand how the new system works. We owe it to them to properly prepare them for the future."

While the goal of CUNYfirst is to streamline systems and provide better "customer service" to all members of the University community, that does not mean that CUNY is seeking to shrink staff through technology, Spalter said. For example, as the University speeds up the process of rehiring and paying adjuncts through online applications, officials expect to save time and paper, gradually "redeploying people to use them more wisely," he says, but not cutting jobs.

Ultimately, "this is a huge business-processes change that everyone will have to go through," Correnti said. "It's extraordinary. There will be a lot of good return on investment. It's going to be the smartest thing the University has done since I've been here."  CUNY First chart