So long Charlie Brown: Union replaces venerable administrative tool

For the last 30 years, little has happened at Union College without the help of Charlie. From payroll to phone calls, grades to room reservations, Charlie does it all. In the Peanuts-inspired naming system of Union College computer systems, the server known as Charlie (as in Charlie Brown) has always been the star. The hardware has been upgraded countless times over the years and new features have been added to the software, but at the core, Union College has relied on the same system for three decades.

When Hewlett-Packard, maker of the computers Charlie was designed for, announced they would phase out support for that product line, Union began searching for new administrative software to run on modern servers. Lisa Forbes, associate professor of accounting and finance, was tasked to lead the process.

“We quickly realized there’s no system out there that does everything we rely on Charlie for,” said Forbes. “Whenever the campus has needed new computerized functions, we’ve written it ourselves and added it to Charlie. We had to look for a vendor that provided a suite of tools rather than one comprehensive system, and even then, there are functions unique to Union that no one offers.”

After more than a year of identifying necessary features, comparing vendors and visiting other campuses, the Administrative Software Evaluation Committee chose to contract with Sungard Higher Education to customize and implement their administrative systems for the college. Sungard’s systems are built on Microsoft databases and SharePoint services, allowing for the easy sharing of information between compatible databases, single sign on for all administrative systems and a feature-rich document repository.

Four systems comprise what is informally called “the new Charlie.” At the hub is PowerCampus, a system for tracking student data from their first contact with admissions through to graduation and includes the Self Service Web module. Integrated with PowerCampus are PowerFAIDS, which assists in managing student financial aid and billing, and Dynamics Great Plains, which will handle human resources and accounting functions.  

The fourth system, for now, is the old Charlie. A wide range of peripheral functions will stay within the current system for at least another year until Union’s Information Systems purchases additional software or writes custom programs that integrate into the new systems. These include student leave requests, guest services reservations, and Union Market and bookstore sales.

The software is being rolled out across campus in phases. PowerFAIDS went live with limited functionality in April 2007, Dynamics Great Plains on Jan. 1, 2008, and PowerCampus will be running in February. Self Service, the Web-facing system students and faculty will use to access the system, will be live in late spring.

“In talking to other schools, we kept hearing the same thing,” said Tom Becker, director of Information Systems. “The difference between a system we’ll love and one we’ll hate is the implementation. We are devoting all our resources to a successful launch, but even with the most well-planned implementation possible, there will still be some trying times ahead while the campus learns the ins and outs of the new software.” Those who will use new systems daily say their benefits far outweigh the cost of the learning curve.

Many institutions see an increase in student satisfaction and retention after upgrading to new administrative systems, particularly when they include a Web-facing portal. “The new Charlie catapults everything we do into a future today’s students are impatiently expecting,” said Rob Weaver, vice president for Enrollment and Student Financial Services. “In addition to streamlining behind-the-scenes processes, the Web portal will allow perspective students to track their progress through the admissions process and current students will be able to view their grades and account information securely from anywhere in the world—and that’s just the initial offering. We’ll be able to offer a wide-range of campus services digitally when we get accustomed to the system.”

“PowerFAIDS has already made our office more efficient,” said Elina Camarena, director of Student Financial Services. “After all the systems are running and talking to each other, we’ll see even more benefits. We’ll be able to set up ways to e-mail, text message or IM our students within the system so we can communicate with them in the way they prefer. We can also tell the system to automatically generate letters, like payment reminders, missing document requests and notification of new scholarship awards.”

“Getting ready for online registration has given us a golden opportunity to review and refine how we conduct registration overall,” said Osa Berg, assistant academic dean and director of Records and Institutional Research. “We are giving the students more control over their own schedules and information while keeping academic advising integral to registration. Improving the quality of the process will reduce the moments of stress for the students ... and for us.”

From punch cards to PowerCampus

“I graduated in May 1965, went home to get my furniture, and three days later I started full time,” recalled Dean Dittberner, who retired from Union College in December 2006. During his 41 years, Dittberner saw how the computer revolution has changed life and payroll at Union.

Dittberner began his career in the Accounting department. With the technology the college had at that time, all postings had to be done by hand. “Payroll took four days and student bills took a week to prepare,” he said. “Once we had all the numbers in, we had to reconcile everything by hand—and hope the numbers came out right.”

When Dittberner transferred to Information Systems in 1969, programs and data were stored on paper punch cards. “We had to enter all our data on the cards, sort them, and then put them on the disk,” he said. “When I started, the computer took up the whole room. Now everything is run on a little white box.”

Dittberner described how in 1983, Union College was the first school in the country to put a computer terminal in every dorm room. Used mainly for word processing in the early years, over time more functions such as surveys, forms, games and directory information were added. Although those original terminals are long gone, students continue to have more information options. “Students can check their food bill online, they can see how many worship credits they need, and check out of the dorms for breaks and weekends off campus,” Dittberner said. “Technology has made everything so much faster and easier.”

Information Systems is currently working to put even more student information online. Students can already submit homework to many of their classes using Moodle, and will soon be able to pay their bill and register for classes over the Internet through the new PowerCampus administrative software installation. Things have come a long way since punch cards.