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Back to school during COVID-19: The story of two universities

Reliable data has been critical for universities having to shift gears quickly. The University of Wyoming relied on data from its cloud-based finance and HR systems, and Baylor University was in the midst of moving to cloud ERP when the pandemic hit.


By Margaret Harrist | October 2020


For many universities in the United States, the COVID-19 threat that they’d been preparing for became real around spring break—and their world changed rapidly.

Colleges sent students home and shifted into virtual classes in just a few weeks. But moving classes online and shutting down dorms were just part of the puzzle. Universities are small cities, many with satellite campuses, that have thousands of employees and dozens of buildings, plus a range of programs, such as research projects, that must go on. Add to an already tight budget virus testing needs, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, space reconfigurations for bringing students back to campus, along with hardware to enable virtual classes. Then balance all that with the constantly changing realities and understanding of COVID-19—and planning for this fall presented administrators with a huge challenge. Having access to financial and human resources data from across the organization and the ability to perform analysis was critical.

University of Wyoming

The University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming, had a distinct advantage: During the last few years, the university moved from a range of decades-old back-office systems and a sea of manual spreadsheets to modern, cloud-based applications from Oracle.

Baylor University in Waco, Texas, had moved its HR functions to Oracle’s cloud as well—and was in the middle of migrating its finance systems to the cloud when the pandemic hit. This is a story about how administrators got the data they needed to make tough financial and personnel decisions.

Spring into remote learning

“In January , we all knew the virus was coming and there were going to be big changes—and yet it felt really sudden,” says Laura Shevling, senior director of financial systems and business optimization at the University of Wyoming.

The university, with more than 11,000 students, first extended spring break by an additional week, while telling faculty to use that time to shift their classes to online—which is no small ask. But the faculty and staff understood that having students return to campus after spring break would be very risky for the faculty and staff as well as the entire community.

In addition to shifting classes to online, university leaders had to identify the essential workers who needed to be on campus as the situation evolved—and how to deliver some services differently. For example, the university shifted all student counseling services and recreation center classes online so that students could still access these services safely.

While the university got creative in moving many of those college experiences to virtual, the task of determining campus staffing needs as the situation evolved required data. Shevling says the insight and analysis capabilities of Oracle Fusion Cloud HCM and Oracle Fusion Cloud ERP were key.

“The cloud was helpful in identifying essential workers, as we could easily generate employee lists and reporting lines and then share that data with executive leadership in each area,” she says. Many of those decisions were made by the university’s emergency executive policy group, which would decide during its 8 a.m. meetings what specific data they needed—and the HR team would be able to provide it that day.

Here’s just one example of the daunting complexity university administrators faced. Many faculty members canceled trips they had planned and, depending on how they booked the trips, couldn’t get refunds or were getting credits instead. University departments asked the school’s administration if these expenses would come out of their departmental budgets—which were already expected to be reduced in the next six to nine months.

The University of Wyoming finance department was able to easily add a program code into the Oracle Cloud ERP system that let them track invoices and payments that were COVID-related, which was very useful once Congress passed the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March.

“I can go in and in five minutes run a report on our invoices filtered for that code and see how much we’ve spent on COVID,” Shevling says. “Before moving to the cloud, reporting on budget versus actuals would have required weeks of going department by department pulling spreadsheets, then manually adding them together to get a static number that by the time the report was done was likely out of date.”

“We have really good accountants and business managers who would have tracked those numbers in each department,” she says. “But being able to quickly get the big picture and drill down from there has been so beneficial.”

 

“It would have been incredibly challenging to pay our hourly non-benefits employees, who are mainly our students and the most at-risk population because many are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Laura Shevling, Senior Director of Financial Systems and Business Optimization, University of Wyoming

And when the university later received CARES Act funding, it was able to quickly and easily set up those funds as awards in the Oracle Cloud Project Portfolio Management module of Oracle Cloud ERP, which, Shevling says, “provides a great way to track spend by project and bill back to sponsors.”

Easy move to remote back office

Most of the employees in the University of Wyoming’s human resources and finance departments quickly transitioned to working remotely in March. Out of the more than 70 employees in the school’s financial affairs division, only one needed to come to campus to physically print checks, as some of the university’s smaller suppliers still require that method of payment, Shevling says. The rest of the financial processes were already online using the Oracle system.

Before moving HR to the cloud, paying hourly workers was a paper-based, twice-a-month process that relied on time sheets and supervisor signatures.

“If we weren't on the cloud, we would have had more faculty and staff on campus, and we would have likely seen a delay in reimbursements to employees,” she says. “It would have been incredibly challenging to pay our hourly non-benefits employees, who are mainly our students and the most at-risk population because many are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Expense reimbursements are another area that improved dramatically with the move to the cloud. When a faculty member bought something for the office, the former system required a paper receipt taped to a computer printout. Today, employees just snap a picture of the receipt and upload it into the expenses app from their phone or upload it to the system directly.

“With the finance department working remotely, we are able to keep up with everything and maintain the payment cycle to suppliers,” Shevling says. “As we planned the transition back to campus this fall, we asked our finance people if they really needed to come back, knowing the priority is to reduce the density on campus. They all said that they’re working fine remotely.”

Moving to the cloud during COVID

Like the University of Wyoming, Baylor started preparing for the pandemic in early 2020. When the decision was made that the university needed to move to remote classes, the students were already on spring break, the highly ranked Baylor Bears men’s and women’s basketball teams were preparing for the NCAA basketball tournaments (which were canceled)—and the university was in the midst of moving its finance systems to Oracle Cloud ERP.

Baylor University

“Luckily finance, IT, and HR had locked arms for a very, very long time prior to this,” says Cheryl Gochis, vice president and chief human resources officer at Baylor, which had moved its HR systems to Oracle Cloud HCM last year in the first phase of the school’s cloud migration.

“We had developed relationships where we could give each other very straight feedback and could help each other understand the different contexts,” she says. But unlike their counterparts at the University of Wyoming, the team planning the COVID response at Baylor found that they couldn’t easily access all the data they needed.

“We're going into this major situation, and we're trying to communicate and give people things they need and the number of steps it took us just to access normal data that was correct was incredible,” Gochis says. “I think that motivated the team even more; they were probably ready to push go-live even quicker than our goal of June 1. We found out we were more resilient than we would have given ourselves credit for.”

Baylor, which has more than 19,000 students, found it had another advantage in this cloud implementation: With faculty and staff working from home and dependent on the school’s systems, everyone was forced into new ways of working. The cloud implementation team focused on communicating with users, training them, and understanding their concerns—and because of circumstances, they had users’ full attention and focus.

“Typically at the beginning of June, Baylor would have people overseas and doing summer school or doing sabbaticals and focused on research out in the field,” she says. “This year, it felt like everyone was in Waco on their computer.”

Another attention-getter: On the day of go-live, Baylor released a video promoting the new system featuring Angela Kinsey, a Baylor alum who plays an accountant, Angela, in the enormously popular sitcom The Office. Kinsey and other actors from The Office joined the university president Linda Livingstone—which certainly helped draw attention to the new ERP system.

Looking back—and ahead

“One of the things I think we wish we would've done differently is engaging managers in the communication process much earlier. They understand what impacts their team,” says Gochis. “We were trying to communicate to everyone, and I think that's a really good thing and it was appropriate, but this is really a time where a leader can communicate in ways that really matter to his or her employees. Employees may hear information from the CEO or other leaders, but they’ll go to verify that information with their boss.”

That’s a lesson she says they will carry forward at Baylor.

For now, the focus at Baylor, Wyoming, and all universities is the safety and health of students, faculty, and staff.

Both Baylor and the University of Wyoming required students to have a negative test result before returning, and they’re testing faculty, staff, and students on campus regularly. It’s a big initiative, and having as many staff members as possible to continue to work remotely helps both universities keep their attention on students and those who need to be on campus.

“We didn’t want our focus to be on finance and HR during this time,” says the University of Wyoming’s Shevling. “And because we had cloud-based systems, we could spend our time and resources focusing on creating a safe return to campus.”

Photography: Courtesy of Baylor University and University of Wyoming
Illustrations: Oracle

Margaret Harrist

Margaret Harrist

Margaret Harrist is director of content strategy and implementation at Oracle, where she focuses on digital disruption, enterprise resource planning, supply chain, Internet of Things, and SaaS. Follow her at @mharrist.