University of Minnesota scrambles for $83.6M campus-wide tech upgrade


The computer system that handles everything from student registration to payroll at the University of Minnesota is going to run out of product support in December 2014, leaving University officials rushing to upgrade it.

In an urgent move, the Board of Regents approved an $83.6 million plan to upgrade the Enterprise Resource Planning system last week, which should be fully upgraded and implemented in December 2014.

Without product support, Oracle — the company licensing the system— would stop sending the University vital tax, security and legislative updates, which would prevent the University from being able to distribute financial aid and research grants.

Andy Hill, the upgrade project’s director, compared the large one-time cost to deferring maintenance on a building.

“At the end of life of that building, you all of a sudden have to put all this money into it because you haven’t done anything to maintain it this whole time,” he said. “That’s sort of what happened with this project.”

To prevent having large one-time expenditures like this in the future, Hill said the Office of Information Technology will do more frequent maintenance on the system.

Scott Studham, chief information officer and vice president of information technology, said the upgrade will make the University more efficient, current and environmentally friendly because it would eliminate more paper waste.

University chief financial officer Richard Pfutzenreuter proposed a financial plan to the Board of Regents that would pay for the system upgrade by 2019.

The proposal caused some discord with the regents, because the $83.6 million was not in the proposed budget for this year. Pfutzenreuter said this happened because the University hadn’t finalized the numbers when the budget was submitted in July.

‘Windows 3.0’

From a technical aspect, the upgrade will be similar to upgrading a computer program but far more complicated, Hill said.

“We’re currently on a system similar to Microsoft ME, or one of those early versions — Windows 3.0, something along those lines,” he said. “We have to move to more current technology, which is Windows 7, Windows 8.”

The majority of the time for the upgrade will be spent assessing each application University business units use to determine which need upgrades.

Another step will be to split the student and human resources databases, which are currently the same. This is an issue because an update for one affects the other.

Oracle decided to split the two databases a few years ago, but Hill said it didn’t provide concrete plans on how universities should split them.

Student use

Fortunately for students, staff and faculty, Hill said, OIT will upgrade the system separately from the current one and then implement it once it is all done, so it won’t affect current use.

According to an Oracle study,  the University has the second-most customized system in the country because staff members have tacked on their own programs over the years to fit changing student and faculty needs.

But this customization will no longer be necessary with the upgrade, Hill said, because Oracle now offers many similar programs.

Graduation Planner, for example, is a program staff developed themselves, but Oracle now offers something comparable.

Junior Sherry Hemmerich said Graduation Planner is helpful, but she gets frustrated with it sometimes.

“You have to click on so many buttons to see what classes you still have to fulfill,” she said. “It’s not as helpful as they make it seem.”

But junior Aditi Pradeep said she uses Graduation Planner all the time and that her friends at other universities don’t have it.

Students also said they were frustrated with registration, which Hill said the upgrade will streamline.

Pradeep said she normally has about 20 tabs open when she registers for classes, and she’d prefer an easier way.

As juniors, Pradeep, Hemmerich and Div Shukla said they wish the new system could be available for use now since they will graduate before it is upgraded. But Shukla said it might be for the best.

“Switching to the new server would be difficult just because we’ve used it for three years now,” he said.

Where the $83.6 million comes from

Julie Tonneson, associate vice president for budget and finance, said funding for the ERP comes from creating an automatic expense from each unit in the University.

Each unit pays an amount equal to 1.25 percent of the salaries in that department to the ERP fund.

If the assessment rate for the ERP stayed at 1.25 percent, the University would not pay off this upgrade until 2025.

Pfutzenreuter proposed to increase this assessment rate to 1.75 percent of salaries in each department so the University could pay for the upgrade by 2019 and then start generating positive revenue for the more frequent maintenance of the system.

He said this is merely a planning scenario, however, and that he will explore other options before settling on one to be implemented for the fiscal year 2013 budget.

“It has to be paid for,” Pfutzenreuter said. “This is one option, but I don’t think the president or myself are stuck on this particular option.”

He said they will consult with the financial community at the University and choose a viable scenario by November at the latest.

Studham emphasized the importance of the upgrade.

“This is a system that’s so integral to the University,” he said. “It’s just a great opportunity for us to really look at how to improve the system and achieve operational excellence.”