PeopleSoft glitches create headaches

by Kristin Gustafson

PeopleSoft, the new software program used for University registration, human resources, financial aid and other student services, has earned a new name from those who use it every day.
When University officials purchased the multimillion-dollar software system in July 1997, they hoped for streamlined and efficient management of student records, financial aid and tuition as well as a solution for year 2000 conversion.
But the system has failed to deliver the services students rely on most.
The Board of Regents listened Friday as University officials listed failures of the $53 million system, which include skyrocketing costs, late shipments and performance problems, as well as the impact on slighted students and burned-out staff.
“The good news is that it works,” said Bob Kvavik, associate vice president for academic affairs. “The bad news is that it doesn’t work as it should.”
Regents voiced concerns about costs that continue to exceed the original budget. The board has already approved $10 million in contingencies. University officials told regents that PeopleSoft could cost an additional $1.7 million by January.
About 37,000 students experienced a two-month delay in receiving financial aid this fall. And the registration system has kicked students out during peak times.
“It’s just slow and stubborn,” said Pam Dutchin, student support-services assistant, as a student sat waiting for system glitches to cease long enough to register.
Dutchin dialed several numbers to solve the PeopleSoft slowdown, patiently noting the line growing behind the student.
Registration delays of up to a half-hour were not uncommon during the fall semester, said Dutchin, who helps students register and change their college and degree applications.
“One half-hour was doing good,” she said. “And that is for one student.”
“(Delays) can vary from day to day depending on what the PeopleSoft people are doing to it, upgrading it or fixing bugs,” Dutchin said.
Though things have improved — now taking only 10 minutes to switch from screen to screen — Dutchin said error messages shut her out of the system once or twice per week.
Students stream steadily through the West Bank student-service center where Dutchin works. Patience can run thin when things go wrong, said Dutchin, who has worked at the University for 19 years.
Most students have been patient and understanding, she added. But staff burnout has caused a few resignations.
The problem peaked in mid-November when online registration clashed with other PeopleSoft-application use. Computers slowed to a crawl as did the number of registrations the system could accept in one day.
Although the University has tried to stagger system access to improve PeopleSoft’s performance and prevent overload, problems with shipping and software performance negated these measures.
For instance, the University realized in July that new financial-aid software would fail, shorting 37,000 students of their financial-aid checks and credits. A University contingency plan to tide students over until payments arrived was then hurt by incomplete and inadequate software, said Nancy Sinsabaugh, interim director of the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid.
As a result, University programmers had to fix software that should have been “off-the-shelf ready,” Sinsabaugh said. Because the University couldn’t wait for PeopleSoft to fix its problems, the institution has paid for University programmers to get the system running.
Yet despite complexities and shortcomings, Sinsabaugh said the system should stay.
Relief will come once the University makes it through this bulge of online system demand, she said.
Regents in general were critical of the faulty system’s performance.
Kvavik and Sinsabaugh told regents that PeopleSoft was the best product available when the University purchased it in 1997. But they said the size and scope of the University’s needs has put PeopleSoft through a bigger test than the company could handle.
Though students have been poorly served by the system and staff are burned out, Kvavik defended staying with PeopleSoft.
“This product will work; we’ve seen it work,” Kvavik said. “It is the performance and shipping problems that are killing us.”
Kvavik said the University is not alone in its frustration.
Provosts from seven other Big Ten schools joined Bob Bruininks, University executive vice president and provost, in a Nov. 22 letter demanding changes from PeopleSoft. The group represents 35,000 faculty members and more than a half million students.
“The performance of the systems, in terms of responsiveness, is simply unacceptable,” the letter reads.
“There are too many bugs and patches breaking other parts of the system. Packaging, new releases and fixes are not well tested and poorly deployed,” the provosts wrote. “We are spending an enormous amount of time and money simply getting the software ready to work at our schools. As a consequence … expensive contingencies and workarounds … inevitably leave our customers and staff unhappy with PeopleSoft.”
Regents bantered over the issue at length, voicing concerns about escalating costs, undelivered student services, staff burnout and PeopleSoft’s unresponsiveness.
“I think we should ask PeopleSoft to come and apologize to those at the University most affected, which are the students,” said Maureen Reed, Board of Regents vice chairwoman. “I think our students deserve better.”
Dutchin, the student-service employee who works closely with students and the software, said she knew PeopleSoft would take some time.
“They did warn us it would be two steps backward before one step forward, so we’re hoping,” she said.
Mostly, Dutchin said she hopes the University works to speed up PeopleSoft and work out the kinks.
And although she said she understands the University needed a new system to replace one that would not have survived Y2K, Dutchin is not convinced an end is in sight.
“I’ve talked to other institutions,” she said. “It’s been two years, and they’re still wondering when it’s going to get better.”

Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and welcomes comments at [email protected]. She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3211.