Jan. 15, 2003
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NMU Proceeds with Banner Conversion

Banner will be the buzz word on campus for the next 18 months. If you haven’t heard it yet, chances are that will soon change. Northern is moving ahead with plans to convert multiple administrative software programs to the Banner integrated Web-based program and phase out the current PLUS system, which runs on an IBM mainframe. The project is a sweeping initiative that will impact many offices and departments. Banner consists of six integrated systems: finance, alumni/development, student, financial aid, human resources and general shared data.

Costs have not been finalized, but the project might require an investment of up to $2.6 million over the next couple of years. The Banner executive committee at NMU has cited five reasons to proceed now rather than later, even with the tight budget situation. One is that mainframe software costs are increasing significantly while the systems are becoming antiquated. SCT Corporation – the parent company for both PLUS and Banner – serves more than 1,100 higher education clients. Only 200 remain on the PLUS system.

There is little motivation for SCT to maintain and enhance mainframe software when so many schools are shifting to the Web-based variety. To accelerate the conversion rate, SCT offered no-cost migration and free software incentives to universities willing to make the transition to Banner.

“These incentives were only available through the end of 2002,” said Mike Roy (Finance and Administration). “We wanted to act before the deadline because it will ultimately save us more than $1.1 million in software costs. There are fees for training, consulting and conversion tools related to Banner, but once the systems are implemented, the university will save more than $300,000 per year in hardware and software maintenance costs. In addition to the annual savings, the systems will allow the university to expand services and streamline some of its operations.”

A recent example of streamlining came in the form of a self-service Web application for NMU housing and orientation. Students were able to complete an online form, make their deposits and sign up for orientation from their home computers. This eliminated the usual costs associated with printing, postage and manual data entry.

“When we saw what was possible with the housing and orientation process, we thought – wow – imagine the capabilities and potential cost savings of other self-service Web applications,” said Felicia Flack (AdIT), chair of the Banner executive committee. “People want do business via the Web, but it’s not practical to develop those types of applications when the underlying architecture is mainframe because everything must feed back to the VSAM files, which are not compatible with Web technology. Banner will allow us to do that. It offers much more in terms of capability and flexibility.”

Flack said another benefit is 24x7 access to information. The current system is shut down from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. to batch process more than 140 jobs that update the VSAM files. Because Banner uses the Oracle relational database, updates are made on a real-time basis, eliminating the need for any shutdowns – particularly late at night when student computer use is high.

Finally, the shift will relieve concerns about a viable disaster recovery plan in the event the main server is rendered inoperable. A vendor who could supply the necessary hardware to back up the PLUS system recently quoted a price of $65,000 annually. With Banner, a duplicate server will be located at a second campus location and Oracle will be set up to mirror database updates. If one fails, the other could be activated.

As a first step in the conversion process, SCT consultants will work with departments to document current NMU business processes, identify potential improvements that Banner supports, and provide a gap analysis highlighting alternative practices that are supported within Banner. Next, conversion teams from each area will begin learning how the system works. Training will be conducted by SCT consultants.

The finance system will include general ledger, stores inventory, purchasing, accounts payable, budgeting, accounts receivable, fixed assets and grants. It is scheduled to be operational by June 1. The alumni/development modules – campaigns and gift and pledge processing – are in a test phase and should be in production by the end of June. The financial aid system will go live in January 2004, as will human resource functions such as payroll, benefits, applicant tracking, position control and COBRA. The student system, including admissions, scheduling, registration and academic history, is scheduled to go live in May 2004. The project closeout is slated a month later.

“It seems we’ve always adapted systems to the way we do business, but now we are going to have to change the way we do business based on some of the applications and flexibility Banner provides,” Flack added. “We don’t even know all of the possibilities yet because our programmers will build new applications on top of the core system. I do know that this is one of the biggest changes to take place on campus because of the widespread impact, and it will be a huge improvement over what we have now.”

Emerick Gift Establishes Emergency Book Fund

Lon Emerick, retired NMU communication disorders professor, and his wife Lynne have made a gift to the NMU campaign to assist students with emergency funding for course books and materials.

“It’s the pay-it-forward concept,” said Lynne. “This is our small way of giving back for all the different kindnesses we’ve received over the years. Our thought is that a little bit of help at a critical time can be the difference of a student staying or leaving school.”

The financial aid office will identify the recipients of the Emerick Book Fund awards. These awards will cover the standard cost of books for a semester (currently $250) to part- or full-time students whose immediate circumstances make short-term assistance particularly critical.

“Each semester there are students who come to us in desperation because something has happened to keep them from buying books,” said Mark Delorey (Financial Aid). “For instance, a student this semester had her suitcase disappear on her trip here and she had to use her available cash for clothes. This fund will help us take care of students who have acute, short-term financial problems – the one-time special needs cases.”

Faculty and staff can direct students who may be eligible for an Emerick award to financial aid. Delorey said several faculty and staff members have made gifts to the fund since learning about it and that requests on how to contribute should be directed to the Development Fund.

NMU Accepted into AQIP

NMU was notified by the Higher Learning Commission last week that it has been accepted into the Academic Quality Improvement Project (AQIP) and its accreditation has been extended through 2009-10. The notification officially moves Northern from the traditional Higher Learning Commission (formerly North Central Association) model of accreditation to the AQIP program, a subdivision of HLC. Accreditation remains in effect as long as NMU remains active in the organization and demonstrates commitment to "continuous quality improvement."

The next step is for NMU representatives to attend a strategy session with five other post-secondary institutions near Chicago in late February.

'Journey to Equality' Celebration Planned

NMU will honor the memory of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a “Journey to Equality” celebration Jan. 20-25. The celebration begins with a commemorative walk from 3-5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20. Participants will meet in the lobby of Payne and Halverson Halls and proceed to the University Center. NMU employees have been authorized release time for the walk, provided classes remain in session and offices remain open. For details on other activities, go to Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

Student Teachers Gain International Experience

Study-abroad programs for all majors have been a longstanding fixture at many colleges and universities. But according to an article in Education Week, a growing number of education schools have recently expanded or developed international training opportunities designed specifically for prospective teachers. NMU is part of this trend, with student teaching sites in England, Ecuador and – most recently – New Zealand.

“The experience allows them to develop new perspectives, ideas and ways of doing things that they can share with others when they return to the United States," said Rodney Clarken (Education).

NMU has negotiated agreements with foreign institutions that have similar academic standards. This makes it easier to effectively monitor student teacher performance.

“We share our expectations with these institutions,” Clarken said. “They send formal evaluation reports to us, which we keep as part of a student’s teaching record.”

The program in New Zealand started this past fall. Janet Swanson, an elementary education major, spent 13 weeks in the country. She taught in Pakuranga, a suburb of Auckland, on the northern island of New Zealand.

“It was the best experience of my life,” Swanson said. “I gained so much more from the experience than I could have in an American school. I spent the first half in the new entrants class (5-year-olds) and the second half with 9- to 11-year-olds. I learned how to teach non-English-speaking students. I encourage everyone to try to experience life outside the United States.”

Clarken asserts that injecting a dose of international flavor into teacher training has the potential to expand students’ understanding and abilities. Does it also have the potential to enhance their job prospects when they return, or would a prospective employer prefer a candidate whose field experience was in a more comparable system in the United States?

“My general sense is that most people will perceive it as a very positive thing,” Clarken responded. “The experience allows them to bring to the schools they will teach in a unique way of thinking about education. They might be able to add new information to discussions about education that probably wouldn’t surface otherwise. I think employers would value that.”

Eight students begin their teacher training overseas this semester: four in New Zealand, two in England, one in Ecuador and one in France. The latter was arranged through the modern languages and literatures department. Clarken anticipates the number of participants will grow steadily in the future as NMU continues to promote available opportunities and more students become aware of the benefits of student teaching overseas.