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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Tweaking into a whole new era

    While students rush this week to register for next semester’s classes, a leviathan sleeps behind their screens.

    Online systems like WebReg and Student Link track thousands of actions by thousands of students each day. That information is stored in several massive, overlapping databases drawn on by almost every academic department and arm of the university.

    The Student Information System stores data on registration and class credit. The Financial Records System keeps track of every transaction that goes through the bursar’s office. And the Personnel Services Operating System and Sponsored Project Information Network System keep records on UA staff and university research funding. Although some online interfaces may seem unified, they often draw upon information from several different databases. And as anyone who’s attempted to register during peak hours or pay off a bursar’s balance the day before the final deadline knows, their response time can be excruciatingly slow.

    That’s because the “”legacy”” systems that underpin information flows at the UA are growing obsolete. Some of them were first built almost 30 years ago, and have been hacked and modified for years in order to keep up with new technology, new needs and a growing university.

    But our decaying databases could soon have big consequences for the UA. A report prepared for UA President Robert Shelton’s office this February found that “”we are at significant risk with our current systems, with risks worsening over time.”” Our hodgepodge of information systems “”jeopardizes our ability to exercise adequate internal controls in our financial systems and in meeting complex regulatory requirements for grants and contracts.”” That includes funding from major supporters of UA research, like the National Science Foundation.

    In a memo to the campus community last week, Shelton said that “”most every major university is light years ahead of us when it comes to this kind of technology”” and that “”we need a permanent system in place to avoid jeopardizing any of our funding.””

    Fortunately, the UA has a plan for catching up. The university has proposed an overhaul of databases on campus, combining research and employee databases into one archive managed by an open-source academic software suite called Kuali, and financial and student information into one based on software by PeopleSoft, a major provider of human-resources applications.

    Progress will come at a price – the proposal estimates anywhere between $80 and $90 million over the course of several years – but unlike some of the UA’s other priorities, an information overhaul is a prudent investment.

    The Kuali Financial System, a software suite designed by several cooperating academic institutions, including the UA, is especially noteworthy. Although software licensing for the PeopleSoft products alone will cost an estimated $6.9 million, Kuali’s open-source system is completely free. Furthermore, the academic community dedicated to designing and revising the software will ensure that it remains relevant for years to come.

    And although moving to PeopleSoft is pricey, it has its benefits as well. Arizona’s other two public universities already use student software written by PeopleSoft, so adopting their systems will smooth in-state collaboration.

    President Shelton is set to present the technology proposal to the Arizona Board of Regents at their meeting this month. We hope they’ll approve the overhaul – before WebReg wait times stretch for weeks.

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