Preventing Pre-Registration

February 14, 2003

Topics = { Corruption + Entrepreneurship + Harvard University + Technology }

Over the past several months, a number of campus personalities have submitted their thoughts on the controversial topic of pre-registration. The problem: at a university where space is already at a premium, shopping period does not give administrators ample time to determine which classes will be the most crowded. Dean Kirby has proposed the straightforward idea of registering for classes far in advance, a system that has been implemented, supposedly successfully, at other campuses across the country. As is the case with any debate, each side has salient points, and both systems have myriad advantages and disadvantages. However, there is one key difference between this discussion and every other dispute that has ever taken place at Harvard: in this case, none of the parties involved know enough to see the real problem. Pre-registration is not a question of timing and space. It is fundamentally a question of technology.

Between the extreme solutions of scrapping shopping period in favor of an earlier registration date—presumably when students are scrambling to finish papers and study for midterms—and a week of chaos in February—when overcrowded rooms and lotteries are the modus operandi of the College—there lies a better solution: the World Wide Web. Nothing is stopping the administration from creating a web site where each November, students could list their top choices for second-semester classes without necessarily getting locked in. So why doesn't this web site exist? Among the many possible reasons, two stand out: an Information Systems department known for its willingness to embrace new technology at a snail's pace, and the incredibly risky and expensive nature of taking on new projects with the University's preferred database software providers, Oracle and PeopleSoft.

The best example of Harvard's inability to implement effective technological solutions quickly is web-based e-mail. Though most freshmen today reportedly use web-based e-mail as their primary method of accessing messages, at this time last year, it wasn't even an option. Harvard University Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS) spent no less than three full years investigating the different options available for Harvard's web-based system, finally settling on one of the slowest and most cumbersome products available, known in the open-source community as IMP. Over the summer, FAS was forced to allocate "a significant budget" for server upgrades to support the bloated software. Meanwhile, during the time that HASCS was deliberating, comparable products existed that were several times faster than IMP. Deciding upon a product should have taken weeks, not years, and choosing one better than IMP might have saved untold thousands of dollars, in addition to students' valuable time.

Harvard's administrators also have a history of making uninformed technology decisions. This past semester, Dean Illingworth brought Undergraduate Council elections to a complete halt in order to "secure" registrar data mainly comprising student identification numbers. The logic behind his original concern, that the Council's third-party servers were somehow more vulnerable than Harvard servers, was flawed at best. Such a statement ignores what must be the most fundamental concept of the internet: that interconnectedness renders the physical location of any server irrelevant. In addition, his mandate to revise the voting procedure inadvertently yielded a log file correlating student names with voting records—an even better find for Illingworth's hypothetical hacker.

Any student who has worked at a University position in the past six months is all too familiar with PeopleSoft, the enterprise software company that Harvard recently selected to run its payroll systems. Administrators conveniently failed to notice that only months before, Cleveland State University was almost forced to shut down completely when PeopleSoft errors brought all of that university's registration, accounts payable, accounts receivable, human resources and payroll systems to a complete halt. In an interview with The Crimson, PeopleSoft maintained that Harvard simply should have expected the problems. Ironically, PeopleSoft was right.

The source of pre-registration woes is none other than PeopleSoft's predecessor in the payroll department, Oracle Corporation. When Harvard first implemented Project ADAPT, the University purchased a site license for Oracle's database software to the tune of approximately $110 million dollars. The resulting software was horrible; professors are still forced to type in a thirty-three digit code each time they need to be reimbursed for an expense. (Think of your own nine-digit code; type it in three times and then some. Repeat.) Even worse, the University managed to lock itself into the curse of enterprise software: consulting fees. Implementing any new project of considerable magnitude requires hiring Oracle-trained consultants, whose fees often run in the millions of dollars themselves. It is for this very reason that, according to its Assistant Director of Information Technology, Oracle is nowhere to be found in the Kennedy School of Government. Purchasing a competing product, Lotus Notes, was actually cheaper.

It's no wonder that Harvard's logistics are a mess. Pre-registration is a simple problem that is easily solvable, and yet because of technological blunders from the past, the University is stuck. With FAS about to cut its budget, it is even less likely that an effective web-based solution will be implemented. The College could always consider smaller, less expensive software vendors or technically-savvy student groups, but then again, why bother when you already have the cost-effectiveness of Oracle and the reliability of PeopleSoft?


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