Banner launch pushes ahead amid mounting student criticism

Banner continues to move toward full implementation on schedule and on budget, University officials say, but a recent flood of student criticism has spread through the campus.

The new software, which will integrate information from 11 different University offices into a single database, has already gone live for the admission and financial aid offices. The Banner project first started in 2002, and administrators originally intended to fully launch the program in spring 2005.

But the effort was plagued by delays and cost overruns, and in November 2005 officials halted the project to revamp its management, set a new timeline and boost its original $10 million budget to $23 million. The project resumed in March 2006 with Associate Provost Nancy Dunbar at its helm.

“Banner is going to vastly improve the way Brown handles information,” Dunbar said. “And since we restarted this program in March, we have missed zero deadlines – we’ve made every milestone we have set.”

Online course registration, the most visible and highly anticipated component of Banner, is set to launch this April – two years later than originally planned.

But a highly critical group of about 750 students has focused neither on deadlines nor budgets. Brown Against Banner – a Facebook group that includes nearly 15 percent of Brown undergrads despite having been formed just last Thursday – prominently displays a list of concerns about Banner’s online registration component. The group criticizes University officials for leaving students in the dark about their intentions for the Banner project.

“Brown Against Banner advocates the sharing of information from administrators to students, which simply hasn’t been done,” said Alexandra Hellquist ’08, creator and sole administrator of the group. “Students have a right to provide input, or at least to know what is going on.”

The Facebook group’s Web page lists a series of potential Banner features that would be problematic, including binding pre-registration, priority given to seniors and concentrators, strict enrollment caps and mandatory prerequisites.

But Dunbar said all issues raised by Brown Against Banner are flexible and at the discretion of the faculty members.

“Banner will allow professors to conveniently enforce restrictions such as limited enrollment and prerequisites,” she said. “But if a faculty member wants to change the restrictions, they can.”

Dunbar stressed that registration policies under Banner will be no different than current policies because faculty will be able to override any course restriction other than scheduling conflicts.

“Banner will feel different,” she said. “But there is nothing about our curriculum and our courses that Banner will change.”

To improve communication about Banner, the University launched a Web site for the project in October, though Dunbar acknowledged that the administration had not been actively promoting Banner until recently.

But Hellquist said the available information was insufficient to address student concerns. “The Web site talked about integrating systems, but not what it would mean for students,” she said.

Discretionary faculty overrides have been part of the University’s plan for Banner for years. A document released by the College Curriculum Council in May 2005 refers to a presentation by University Registrar Michael Pesta, who stated that faculty would be able to override all course restrictions except scheduling conflicts. Computing and Information Services also launched Web tutorials in January demonstrating faculty overrides and presenting Banner’s user interface.

But student concern extends beyond course restrictions and the timely dissemination of information.

Brown Against Banner’s main page on Facebook featured a message sure to capture the attention of the campus: “This spells the end of shopping period as we know it, and (is) a violation of the spirit of our Open Curriculum – the ability to find classes that we truly love.”

Pesta denied the group’s claim. “The spirit of the New Curriculum will certainly remain intact, including the add/drop period,” he said. “Banner will simply allow us to implement the structures of registration which have been in place all along: prerequisites, caps, et cetera.”

Moreover, Pesta said students have actually indicated a preference for enforced prerequisites, which they described as “too ambiguous.”

“Sometimes students are unaware if prereqs are truly meant,” he said. “Banner will get rid of this ambiguity, and sort out which classes are required and which are simply recommended.”

One faculty member who said he would take advantage of the ability to enforce prerequisites is Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences.

“As a faculty member, I think I’ll be given a little more control over the process than I had before, which obviously appeals to me,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, the administration is implementing this carefully and will do a good job in the end.”

Both the Undergraduate Council of Students and Dunbar released statements yesterday addressing student concerns. The UCS response provided a brief overview of the Banner project and announced two public forums scheduled for next week. Dunbar’s response specifically named Brown Against Banner and individually addressed the points made on its Facebook Web site.

“Shopping period will remain,” she wrote in her statement, which was posted on the Banner Web site (www.brown.edu/banner). “It is defined in our faculty rules as the first two weeks of the term. Students will be able to add and drop courses throughout that period.”

Hellquist said most of the original information posted on her group’s page was a collection of rumors and was written during a time of personal anger toward UCS and the administration – the two bodies responsible for disseminating information about the project. Since speaking to University officials, Hellquist has edited nearly every paragraph of the group’s Web page.

“After the initial rush of outrage, I’ve been trying to be careful about finding out what is going on,” she said.

Dunbar said demonstrations of Banner and mock registrations will begin later this month as online course registration moves closer to full implementation in April.