IT, with Honors

City University of New York aces massive upgrade despite strict fiscal prerequisites.

by Ann C. Logue, November 2009

Learning opportunities at City University of New York (CUNY) span an impressive breadth of educational programs, from College Now, a high school enrichment initiative, to online baccalaureate degrees, and from the New York City College of Technology to the City University School of Law. CUNY is the third-largest university in the U.S. and the largest urban university. Enrollment across CUNY’s 23 institutions stands at more than half a million students, with more than 260,000 earning degree credits and about 273,000 enrolled in continuing education and professional training courses. CUNY’s academic programming is as deep as it is broad. Its alumni include 12 Nobel laureates, former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Jonas Salk, Barbara Boxer, and Jerry Seinfeld are all graduates of CUNY colleges.

When Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Allan Dobrin arrived at CUNY in 2001, he came with both institutional knowledge and plenty of IT experience. He was a graduate of CUNY’s Queens College and had spent four years as chief information officer for the City of New York. Dobrin quickly realized that CUNY’s IT systems were as diverse as its academic programs, but without the depth and coherence.

Dobrin found a collection of mostly homegrown applications, cobbled together over the course of three decades. Many of the original developers of these systems had retired and where staff expertise did exist, they were supporting programs written in obsolete code. Most had been developed in the past by the IT departments and with little input from the business units that these systems were intended to serve.

Despite these facts, CUNY’s IT systems had served the University very well for more than thirty years. But with changing business requirements, it was becoming more difficult to serve the needs of both CUNY’s diverse student body and the 37,000 employees who keep CUNY’s academic and complex administrative machinery humming.

On a higher level, the systems were not contributing to CUNY’s academic commitment to push the frontiers of learning, and did little to enhance CUNY’s presence in the community. Most sizeable universities play an integral role in the intellectual life of their communities. This is especially true of CUNY, with its many outreach programs and a student body that spans virtually every demographic of New York’s vibrantly diverse population. Dobrin was sure that the IT system, as it stood, needed to be improved to support nearly every activity that makes a good university great.

The good news for Dobrin was there was room for improvement. The bad news was that state and city budgets would not support increased spending, even though demand for affordable higher education in New York City was huge and growing. Dobrin’s challenge was to stage a massive upgrade across virtually the entire IT system under stringent fiscal constraints. The solution was the phased implementation of the CUNY Fully Integrated Resources and Services Tool (CUNYfirst) initiative.

Project Orientation
CUNYfirst was a strategy six years in the making. When Dobrin first began exploring options for revamping the IT system, he and his team initiated a competitive procurement process for an enterprise solution. With the 2004 announcement that Oracle had acquired PeopleSoft, Dobrin put the search on hold, shifting his attention from prospective solutions to user requirements. He and his staff engaged users from every campus and every business unit across the university to find out what they needed from a new system.

He also regularly reminded leaders across the institution that the university was committed to a single solution—an important message, since it would be costly and problematic for individual campuses and business units to begin developing solutions on their own.

When Dobrin was satisfied that Oracle intended to continue actively supporting PeopleSoft software, the procurement commenced again and concluded with CUNY’s awarding a contract to Oracle in May 2007. A big advantage in Dobrin’s eyes was Oracle’s willingness to set a fixed price with payments based on specific, measurable deliverables.

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