The story broke on Reddit a couple of weeks ago with a story by Washtenaw Community College student Marie Wood, and has gotten a lot of response on Slack back channels and in various local news outlets. Washtenaw Community College was investigating their IT department for a campus-wide outage in June of 2017 that lasted 3 days and allegedly using it as an opportunity to outsource all IT, laying off 31 full-time staff members or offering them the opportunity to work for the new service provider, though with lower benefits. On May 22nd, WCC announced on its website that the school was planning to outsource its entire IT department. “The network outage prompted us to conduct a comprehensive review of our entire IT infrastructure and staffing,” said WCC President Dr. Rose B. Bellanca. “We have a responsibility to ensure that the college has a sustainable, secure and robust IT infrastructure that meets the needs of all WCC stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff and community members now and into the foreseeable future.”
According to the announcement, the college proposed to its board on May 21st that the school “enter into a strategic partnership with higher education software and IT service provider Ellucian to provide technology management services including onsite support staff for the college” in order to assure that the school had a “sustainable technology environment that is reliable, secure and meets or exceeds stakeholder expectations.”
The stated reason for selecting Ellucian is this: Ellucian already provides WCC’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Banner, which is in use at 2,400 higher education institutions worldwide. Banner supports all key student, financial and human resource transactions. The announcement by Washtenaw Community College stated that, “Most other software applications utilized by the college must integrate strongly with Banner, which has been in use at the college for 20 years.”
William Johnson, WCC VP and CFO said, “Through this partnership, if approved by the board, WCC will have access to the best-trained Banner IT professionals to more fully utilize our ERP system and other core systems that integrate with Banner.”
But hang on. According to Slack channels of various tech professionals around Ann Arbor who have worked at WCC or clients who have used Ellucian, Ellucian has a reputation for “dumpster fire” quality that other companies have to come in later to clean up. The company has a pretty poor rating on Comparably with bottom 15% for gender score, bottom 15% for diversity, and bottom 15% for CEO score, with a bottom 40% score on the site for company culture and paid out a significant sum in 2016 to settle a transgender discrimination lawsuit. It’s possible the IT department has lagged behind in efficiency and that has affected campus services. They admit they’re having some issues. But WCC leadership has shown a lack of understanding of cloud technology and IT infrastructure in general, to the point that the school hosted retreats to better inform their leadership about this decision. It doesn’t seem to have helped much as WCC CFO Johnson at the May 21st board meeting still called cloud computing “confusing.” This has caused concern with a number of people inside and outside Washtenaw Community College, because the college used to have a reputation for having it together when it comes to technical issues and high-quality staffing. With a significant period of upheaval and turnover the last few years, this seems to be slipping.
Ellucian provides technology management services for more than 160 higher education institutions, including 90 community colleges in the U.S. and three community colleges in Michigan, so it sounds as though they are the logical choice for this service. But there are claims that Bellanca is working with company she has outsourced to before and promised WCC employees she wouldn’t in the future. Is that a problem? Not necessarily. It might be the only solution to an intractable problem, as some legacy IT systems can get so far behind the resources available that there isn’t much remedy. And Glassdoor actually has pretty positive reviews of Ellucian’s work culture, giving it a 3.7 out of 5 stars overall. “Great culture and enjoyable place to work,” one review says.
Francisco Roque, Lead System Engineer in the ITS department of WCC, spoke at the public hearing for the outsourcing proposal June 4th, saying he had worked at WCC for 20 years. When reached for comment, he forwarded us his speech from the event to restate his views: “I’ve heard that our IT systems are too complex for us to handle,” he said. “But our systems are no more complex than the admissions process, or more the intricate than the college’s finances, or more regulated than HR…. I’ve heard that our IT systems include too many older or legacy components. But legacy issues are standard in any IT department, and with our decades of institutional knowledge, understand these and their place at the college, whether it be
26 year old protocols like HTTP for the web, even older mail protocols, or the many lines of even older COBOL which are part of Ellucian’s Banner. We certainly do have issues, as dramatically illustrated during the outage a couple years ago. Everyone has outages, such as Google over the weekend. What matters most is that we do our due diligence in new system setups, including hiring local consultants as appropriate, and that my coworkers responded to our outage quickly, working non-stop around the clock both with each other and vendors to resolve the issue and prevent it from happening again. We are this dedicated to WCC because we are professional, and because we work here and live here, in this county, in this state, surrounded by the results of our work.” WCC staff at the board meeting expressed concerns that outsourced IT professionals wouldn’t be able to respond quickly to requests for support, a valid concern.
The WCC Board meets June 25th to vote, which is fast approaching and gives the impression that this issue is settled except for finding the WCC IT department new roles elsewhere. The Reddit article author woodmama, WCC student Marie Wood, claimed that emails to board members weren’t necessarily being received and encouraged the public to reach out to the board of trustees, which can be found here. A Change.org petition is quickly gaining votes to support popular opinion to stop the measure, but will it be enough? Honestly, it may be too late without significant further inquiry. The proposal has been under consideration for 2 years already, and is heading into its final phases. We can only hope that the IT department at WCC has recourse beyond accepting what is generally accepted to be lesser benefits and employment under Ellucian. Most people we reached out to for comment on the story could not be reached or would not go on the record because of fears of backlash due to the high-conflict nature of the situation, so we’re not sure beyond public interest what can be done to shift this situation onto a different track. However, there are about 3 dozen IT folks with a reputation for being pretty decent at their jobs who might be looking for new opportunities, if you or someone you know in Ann Arbor tech is looking to hire. If you sign the petition or contact the board, or know of an open position that might be a good fit for a WCC IT person, please email us. We’re wishing everyone involved the best possible outcome.