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New RA/TA appointment procedures in place

"For the first time in my three-plus years at MIT, my stipend paycheck was available at the start of the term, and my bursar's bill did not say that I owed $10,000 plus in unpaid tuition plus assorted late charges. I can now sleep soundly at night and afford sauce in September for my steady diet of cheap pasta. Thank you for your hard work."

Thus wrote Sloan School doctoral candidate Eric Powers, one of many graduate students, graduate program administrators and Graduate Education Office (GEO) staff members who has praise for the new system for awarding fellowships and research and teaching assistantships.

The online graduate appointments and awards process was developed by Stephen Turner of Information Systems and Norman Wright of Wright Communications, working with Ann Lambertus of CR Associates and Jan Smith of Wright Communications. It was tested and implemented over the summer by a group of graduate administrators, working together as the Financial and Academic Services Transition (FAST) graduate awards team, a part of student services reengineering.

As a result of their efforts, all departments, laboratories and centers were able for the first time in August to enter graduate award information directly into the Student Information System (SIS). This lessens the amount of time it takes to process each award from 15 minutes to two minutes and gives the departments the ability to check or modify data directly.

All appointment information is sent electronically to the Bursar's Office and the Payroll Office, and students are notified through e-mail in a matter of minutes. Administrators no longer have to fill out and mail multiple paper forms. Nor do they have to rely on the GEO to enter all the information and help them solve any problems that might arise in paying tuition or issuing stipends. Consequently, it's much easier to keep students' accounts up to date-the Bursar's Office no longer has to reverse late tuition charges, and students are paid on time.

The new system has also relieved the GEO of an enormous amount of paperwork. "Before, one person had to handle 30,000 pieces of paper a year," said Isaac Colbert, senior associate dean of the GEO. "First we had to enter the data from the forms. Then there were always changes, additions and cancellations, each with a different piece of paper. With all this paper changing hands, there were lots of opportunities for losing things and making mistakes."

Another advantage of the new system is that 98 percent of appointments go through automatically. "I used to have to sign every fellowship award-I've put my signature on hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper," Dr. Colbert said. "Now only the unusual cases come to this office for review and resolution."

Serving on the graduate awards team were Peggy Berkowitz and Pat Solakoff, physics; Nadine Champagne, GEO; Sandra Chauncy, Bursar's Office; Janet Fischer, chemical engineering; Paulette Mosley and Laura Rose, Operations Research; Linda Peterson, Media Arts and Sciences; Jane Smith and Lisa Wright, Student Financial Aid; Santina Tonelli, Media Lab; Jan Smith and Norm Wright, Wright Communications; and Cathy Lalor, Payroll Office. Maria Fernandez of the Sloan School was the team leader. Bursar Carolyn Bunker and Stan Hudson, director of Student Financial Aid, also worked closely with the team.

"The graduate administrators on the team began using the first draft of the new system in May to enter our summer awards," Ms. Fernandez said. "We came up with suggestions and improvements to the screens that the programmers had designed." Team members were so impressed with the online system that they decided to implement it in time to meet the Bursar's Office's August 15 billing date.

The graduate administrator team members assisted in training their colleagues at classes held in the new Professional Learning Center. Andrea Bernard of SIS, who is also part of the FAST effort, made sure that those new to SIS had the necessary software installed in their computers. For nearly two months after the training program began, team members answered their colleagues' questions on an SIS help line.

Some of the inquiries revealed a few bugs that remained as a result of the pressure to meet the August deadline, but all of those problems were resolved within 24 hours, said Ms. Smith of Wright Communications.

In the second phase of the project, the FAST graduate awards team is investigating ways for departments to download SIS information into their own databases to avoid the need in some departments for double entry. They are also looking into ways to streamline special appointments processes.

Dr. Colbert said he was particularly pleased at the role reengineering played in this effort. "We started a few years ago to move the data entry back to the departments, but it took the impetus of reengineering to get the project tested and implemented," he said. "Reengineering gave the project the time, the resources and the staffing to pull it off.

"Most departments readily saw the advantages of the FAST system and quickly adopted it. Now, we no longer have to spend our time slogging through workaday operations-we can just focus on things that really need attention," Dr. Colbert added. "This is what reengineering is supposed to achieve. I'm ready to do cartwheels over this team's success."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 18, 1996.

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