By MICHAEL HEUSNER
When Brooklyn College senior Jessica Voinov noticed she had an outstanding balance on her tuition for some reason, she wanted to find out why as soon as possible.
In a perfect world she would have been able to hop online, identify the cause of the discrepancy, and resolve the situation. But for her, this was not the case. She was not able to access her account on CUNYFirst, a new software system the City University of New York had installed for all of its 24 campuses, to view the balance from home.
She said she couldn’t decipher the system’s confusing account activity section, and decided she would have to talk to a real person. Frustrated, she called the school, and waited for roughly 45 minutes, only to be told that the CUNYFirst system was down, and that unfortunately, her account couldn’t be pulled up. She would have to try again another time.
Stories like this are common when it comes to CUNYFirst, which stands for City University of New York Fully Integrated Resources and Services Tool. The CUNYFirst system was originally designed to build a more cohesive university-wide system as well as increase security over the variety of software colleges had used previously. But CUNYFirst has been the target of derision, drawing many complaints from students and faculty.
Students have complained about not being able to register for classes, get IDs validated, and even worse problems, such as delayed registration and even to graduations being postponed.
Before CUNYFirst, Voinov and other students at Brooklyn College used a system called eSims to handle financial aid, grades, registration and the like for the school, which had 16,524 students in the fall, 2014 semester. This service was not CUNY-wide; other schools used applications that differed.
CUNYFirst was designed by Oracle, the same company that developed the disastrous healthcare.gov website in 2013. The system first rolled out in 2010 at Queens College and Queensborough Community College, and then expanded across the rest of the CUNY campuses in four waves. One CUNY faculty computing expert estimated its cost at an estimated $600 million, a number that has not been confirmed by CUNY.
CUNYFirst was billed as a way to “integrate all of our financial, human resources, and student processes within one Web-based system,” according to Mark Gold, chief technology officer at Brooklyn College and the college’s project management and technical readiness liaison for CUNYFirst. The system’s biggest draws were its ability to consolidate student information throughout CUNY, as well as to increase security for students, who would no longer use their Social Security numbers as identifiers. Instead each student was issued an EmplID number, used to log onto CUNYFirst and perform other tasks such as printing at kiosks around campus.
To many, it seemed CUNYFirst was an attempt to fix what was not broken. A FAQ memo titled “CUNYfirst for Academic Administrators and Advisors Frequently Asked Questions” that Brooklyn College officials sent out to administrators and academic advisors noted that several functions of eSims were no longer available in CUNYFirst.
For example, the waitlist function in eSims, which let students add themselves to a list to be added to a class in the event that that class was closed, was not immediately available in CUNYFirst, although the option was still visible in the enrollment screen, baffling students. The memo stated, “Students should be advised to ignore these prompts” which indicated the presence of the waitlist feature.
The same memo also seemed to acknowledge the frequent outages that seem to occur when the system is stressed, such as during enrollment periods. One question went, “CUNYFirst transactions sometimes seem much slower than comparable SIMS transactions. Will that be the case ongoing?” The answer was not reassuring. It said that while CUNY maintains the system’s vendor was “largely” meeting the standards set for required maximum response time, “CUNYfirst users overall agree that CF can be slower than legacy systems” it replaced. It added that “part of the issue may be the result of peaks in usage at various campuses,” which is exactly what happened when students tried to register for the fall 2014 semester, when the system went down for an extended period.
Students were not the only ones feeling frustrated with CUNYFirst. Professors also had their complaints. James Cox, a professor of computer and information science at Brooklyn College, said that he still uses Brooklyn College’s in-house web portal quite a bit rather than CUNYFirst, and recalled the story of a student who could not file for graduation in time because of a glitch in the CUNYFirst system.
Brian Dunphy, a lecturer in Brooklyn College’s Department of Television and Radio, said that CUNYFirst’s shortcomings were certainly annoying, but besides the sporadic outages, the system wasn’t too terrible. He sympathized with those who had to deal with the system on a daily basis, and had to relearn something that they had used everyday for years.
“It’s an imperfect system when everyone needs it to be perfect,” he lamented. When asked if he believed the system had improved since its introduction, he responded, “well so far today it hasn’t crashed yet.”
Like Cox, Dunphy tried his hardest not to use CUNYFirst, using it only for registration and grades when it came to his classes.
CUNY spokeswoman Rita Rodin acknowledged the problems that CUNYFirst had suffered but said there is a new application that students and faculty will be able to use to access their information without logging into CUNYFirst.
She also said that CUNY had taken significant steps to correct past problems, such as the “implementation of a comprehensive communications plan to provide greater access to information on the status of CUNYFirst at the start of the Spring 2015 semester.”
Rodin said CUNY administration was working to gather feedback from students and faculty in order “to learn more about the impact of outages during the start of the fall, 2014” semester. “We are implementing a communications plan for use, if necessary, during the critical time at the beginning of academic semesters.”
David Arnow, a professor of computer and information science at Brooklyn College, wrote several articles disparaging CUNYFirst. He charged that CUNY’s administration used it to consolidate its power over the campuses. In one article he asserts, “CUNY Central sought absolute control over all college activity, including curriculum.”
Arnow said the cost of CUNYFirst has ranged above $600 million, actually a low amount compared to what the system should have cost. He sees this as a potential reason as to why Oracle, the company behind CUNYFirst, was unable to produce a system that could keep up with high student demand, and which actually seemed to strip features from the previous “aging” systems.
Students who don’t receive financial aid have even less reason to use CUNYFirst outside of registration. But students who rely heavily on the system, such as those who depend on financial aid or those who are close to graduating, have been irritated by a user interface that has been called confusing, as well as the outages which delayed students from clearing up clerical problems.
Glitches in the system led Brooklyn College senior Karoline O’Brien to have to take an extra class that she didn’t need, as well as having another class entered into the system incorrectly, costing her hours of phone calls, emails and voicemails to fix.
Having attended the school for two years, she was used to using eSims, and had trouble with the new system. All in all, it took about three weeks to have her class information entered into the system correctly, she said, and only after being incredibly proactive on her part. What seemed like a harmless error could have actually stopped her from graduating had she not taken action, she explained.
In defense of CUNYFirst, Gold said that students and faculty members with CUNYFirst horror stories are a minority, and that “when things work OK, you don’t get feedback. It just gets used.” He said that CUNY “acknowledged that their communication with CUNYFirst users and the campuses during the crisis could have been much better.”
As far as addressing the outages that occurred sporadically, Gold said that Oracle had been expanding its capacity, as well as “expanding the throughput of the Internet lines that connect the university to the hosting center.”
But despite attempts to alleviate the stress on the system, students are still frustrated with CUNYFirst. Not everything can be accessed from the web portal, another Brooklyn College platform, and not everything can be accessed from CUNYFirst, causing students to maintain multiple accounts across multiple sites.
But while the system is still going through its growing pains, it is important to look at the vital services that it provides. Since the system is CUNY-wide, it makes it easier for transfer students to have all of their information consolidated in one location. CUNYFirst allows users to view their financial aid, academic progress, unofficial transcripts, and class schedules, which many students have had little trouble with when the system is up. Many general complaints were made about layout and aesthetics of CUNYFirst, with some complaining of small links and an unintuitive user interface.
How does CUNYFirst compare to the enrollment systems at schools outside CUNY? Pegeen Ellis, a junior at St. John’s University in Queens, demonstrated her school’s counterpart, which was quick, smooth, and had no instances of prolonged outages that she could remember. “Fighting other people for class spots is more of a hassle than fighting the system,” she said.
But while St. John’s may have a more responsive system, it must be noted that St. John’s is a private institution, with 20,729 undergraduate students as of 2013, compared to CUNY’s 24 institutions and 480,000 full- and part-time students.
For all of the technical enhancements CUNY officials claim that CUNYFirst has brought to students and faculty, Jessica Voinov sums up how many feel about the system in one sentence: “I didn’t see anything wrong with the previous system we used.”
Photo, top: Faina Gordover tries to avoid using CUNY’s new CUNYFirst computer system.