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August 22, 2014

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Some ‘upgrade’: CSN files go missing

Several College of Southern Nevada professors returned to campus the week of Aug. 20 to find that their work, carefully stored in computer files, had disappeared, apparently lost in a shared computer server system that was inexplicably gone.

College administrators said it was an unintended consequence of ongoing upgrades to CSN's technology infrastructure.

But to CSN faculty and staff, the loss of the data was one more piece of ammunition against the college's decision to outsource its information technology services to a private company, SunGard Higher Education.

Twenty months into the more than $40 million, seven-year contract with the Florida-based company, the college's decision to outsource is almost as controversial and reaction to it as raw as in January 2006, when IT staff learned from a newspaper article that their jobs were being outsourced. Then-college president Richard Carpenter transferred their assignments to the company, then known as SunGard Collegis, without seeking competitive bids, just months after the company pronounced that CSN's information technology system was dysfunctional.

Everyone agrees that the IT department, suffering from poor management, understaffing and lack of resources, needed an overhaul. But opinion is mixed on whether outsourcing was the best and most cost effective way to fix the problems.

Administrators, faculty and staff are further divided in their assessment of SunGard's performance so far, with some cheerleading the company and others seeing the server incident and the like as evidence of still-worsening problems.

Given other recent problems at the college, few complainers wanted to be identified. Still, there is so much consternation over problems with information technology that interim President Michael Richards is setting up a faculty and staff committee this semester to assess SunGard's performance and evaluate whether the outsourcing continues to make financial sense.

Overall, Richards and other administrators believe the college's technology capabilities have improved dramatically, largely because of SunGard's management efforts and the company's round-the-clock help desk. SunGard has overseen a $4.5 million investment in the college's technology infrastructure, upgrading the college's network, expanding the number of technology-enhanced classrooms and adding wireless Internet. The college is also spending $1.6 million to create a dedicated server room in an open space originally designated as a student video studio at the Cheyenne campus's telecommunications building.

“We've come a long way because Collegis, now Sungard Higher Education, has been here,” Richards said. “We have hit a number of rocky patches. But for the most part it has been positive.”

Those rocky patches include network failures, Web page problems, the loss of faculty data, including lost Web pages SunGard had redone, and -- most problematic -- the compromise of students' personal records caused by a hacker attack in February. CSN spent $89,000 to inform nearly 200,000 former and current students that their personal information might have been copied in what was the first such intrusion into computer files in the college's 39-year history.

Each incident was inflamed because of poor communication with faculty and staff, Richards said. The biggest complaint about the hacker incident was that CSN didn't report the February incident to students until May.

Most of the problems, however, were part of upgrading the network, Richards said.

“Some of the (faculty) frustration has been justified,” Richards said. “At the same time, we're making continual improvements in this area for a very enormous organization and still keeping the institution running while making improvements. It's like going into your house and replacing all of the plumbing and electrical systems while you are still living there. It is very tough to do.”

Fairly assessing SunGard's performance at CSN is a complicated endeavor. Many faculty and staff are quick to praise SunGard services but worry about the cost of the contract and how the outsourcing was handled. After learning of their fate in the newspaper, IT workers were given only a few days to take jobs with SunGard.

Many former IT workers contend that Carpenter had starved IT of the resources it needed to keep the college's infrastructure up-to-date and did not allow the IT department to fill vacancies.

“Carpenter claimed the no-bid contract awarded to SunGard Collegis was due to poor performance by an understaffed and underfunded IT department that could not meet the needs of the college,” said E. Michael Morales, a former IT professional at CSN. “However, it was his administration that brought about the deterioration of the department.”

College officials have not explained how they expected the outsourcing to save the college $7 million over seven years -- or how they now claim to have saved about $900,000 over the past 20 months. Nor have they released the results of performance surveys the college is supposed to be conducting regularly to evaluate SunGard.

In response to Sun inquiries for specific data about SunGard's performance, Richards provided a draft case study that raves about the company's successes but makes no mention of any of the rough spots Richards himself noted.

The college also did not provide any information on IT costs prior to the outsourcing, or how much staff SunGard provides to the college compared with staffing before.

The lack of information has fueled so much suspicion that Carpenter awarded the contract to the company because he had ties to it, that he publicly denied during an evaluation of his leadership that he had a financial interest in SunGard.

Both he and Paul Gianini, the interim president before Carpenter, had outsourced IT at their previous colleges to SunGard -- Carpenter in Wisconsin and Gianini in Florida.

Five information technology specialists at colleges other than CSN told the Sun that SunGard is an industry leader in serving higher education clients, having acquired competitors Collegis and SCT. But other companies, including IBM, also offer such services.

No-bid contracts are sometimes sought because negotiations can occur without knowledge of staff who otherwise might quit if they knew in advance that their jobs were at risk.

Outsourcing can rescue a troubled IT system quickly and save the college from having to train and recruit hard-to-find IT professionals, said Bill Thirsk, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at Marist College in New York and a former SunGard and Collegis employee.

Chancellor Jim Rogers approved the no-bid contract. Outsourcing contracts for food services, books and other retail services on college campuses regularly cross his desk, Rogers said, and he took Carpenter at his word that outsourcing IT was needed.

But the SunGard contract has triggered problems in the ongoing bid process for a new computing system for the entire Nevada System of Higher Education. In the initial bid process for the $100 million system project, which ran concurrently with CSN's decision to outsource, SunGard did not make the list of finalists. When Carpenter complained stridently to regents last year, the project was rebid, and SunGard has emerged as one of two finalists, along with Oracle, the other major provider of higher education software.

Carpenter's advocacy of SunGard has prompted other administrators, suspicious of his motives, to champion Oracle, two regents familiar with the process said.

At CSN, Carpenter signed a contract addendum with SunGard to help CSN develop online services for distance education students, adding $166,000 a year to the $5.3 million already spent on the outsourcing.

SunGard also has a separate three-year, $1.8 million contract to work with faculty to develop nine online degree programs, four of which have already been finished. The $41.5 million in contracts is subject to automatic fee increases that could easily add another $3 million.

Meanwhile, efforts to restore the crashed server system at CSN were continuing last week.

Christina Littlefield can be reached at 259-8813 or at [email protected]

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