When the CUNYfirst computer system went through a complete meltdown at the start of the Fall semester, it was hard to get information about what was going on. The official CUNYfirst Twitter account (yes, there is one) might have been one place to go for information– but it had not sent out a single tweet since August 11.
Into the breach stepped the parody Twitter account @CUNYfrist, with two transposed letters in its name that made all the difference. @CUNYfrist stands in roughly the same relationship to the real CUNYfirst system as Stephen Colbert does to Bill O’Reilly. Comparison to Colbert is apt, since @CUNYfrist is just as relentlessly in character.
The unknown authors behind @CUNYfrist have offered a steady stream of corporate happy-talk, cheerfully insisting that this is the best of all possible enterprise-wide computer systems. When a user fumes about how slowly the system responds, @CUNYfrist responds that “Patience is a virtue!” With this sage advice is a photo of a tortoise, and a quote from Tolstoy: “The strongest of all warriors are these two – Time and Patience.”
Clarion’s interview with @CUNYfrist was conducted via email at the beginning of October; the questions and answers follow below.
Q: When did you start your Twitter feed?
A: At the start of this semester, when CUNYfirst was having a few little “hiccups”.
Q: Why did you see a need to do so?
A: We felt that the CUNY family needed some light-hearted fun during this time of dynamic service availability changes, and some guidance on how to use CUNYfirst more effectively – like not all logging in at prime times! The service is a lot more accessible during off-peak hours, 11:00 pm – 6:00 am.
Q: Describe CUNYfirst in 140 characters or fewer.
A: CUNYfirst is a dynamic $600m (so far, we think!) integrated IT solution for a centrally-controlled realtime educational environment.
Q: Can you comment on the sustained outages and disruption at the start of this semester and the resulting disruptions?
A: Well, you know the old expression: Least said, soonest mended! But, as we hear our Chief Information Officer of CUNY, Brian Cohen, said in central IT meetings – it really wasn’t a big deal and no one could have prevented it, not even the fourth time.
Q: What is CUNYfirst doing when it’s down?
A: Like all members of the CUNY family, we work hard and play hard. And nap, of course! You know those weird commercials in movie theatres that ask if your phone dreams? Well, it does! And so do dynamic integrated IT solutions for real time education environments.
Q: How do you remain so relentlessly upbeat and optimistic?
A: It’s easy! CUNYfirst’s such an invigorating system to work with. And trying to use its Twitter integration interface is never dull or same-y. Every day you’re following a whole new process…or just tweeting from your phone sometimes. It can be hard with all the kids acting out on Twitter – but like our father-figures in CUNY central, we really just tune out all the whining.
Q: What’s the best and worst thing about CUNYfirst?
A: We’re quite pleased with how the centralized control afforded by CUNYfirst has allowed the Board of Trustees to really roll through Pathways in spite of the endless griping the faculty and students had been doing about that. All those colleges, and faculty and student bodies, voting against it – and that silly anti-Pathways petition thousands of faculty signed! – that stuff was really getting the CUNY family down.
And there was a real chance faculty just weren’t going to make the right business choices and would insist on things like not reducing lab hours or language teaching time, or might even try to run courses that just didn’t fit in the new Pathways silos, so we feel CUNYfirst provided a great opportunity for dealing with all that negativity and turning it around!
The worst thing is not being appreciated for who we really are!
Q: How should we think about CUNYfirst’s role in the university?
A: All-encompassing! I mean, we’re totally central to the university and what it’s becoming. Pathways, tuition hikes, adjunctification – we play a part in every aspect of the New Educational Business Vision for the whole CUNY family.
Q: Are you any relation to former US Senator Bill Frist?
A: Alas, we’re no relation, but we do admire the work of his Tennessee education non-profit, SCORE, whose President and CEO Senator Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) is a keen supporter of attempts to repeal collective bargaining rights for teachers. That’s the kind of right-think business mind that the muddled world of education needs!
Q: Last year a computer science faculty member wrote in Clarion that:
The user interface is an affront to common sense….For example: I log in. The system “knows” that I am a professor. Why then am I confronted with a dozen links, half of which have no relevance to my role? The links themselves are confusing. I’m searching for my class roster. Why would I expect that functionality to be found in “Self Service” rather than “Records and Enrollment” or “Campus Community” or “Reporting Tools” or “People Tools” or “CUNY”? If I click on “CUNY,” I see it has a subsection “Campus Solutions” – wouldn’t that be a place to find rosters?…(Hint: when you open up “Faculty Center,” don’t be so foolish as to excitedly click “Class Roster” – you must first click “My Schedule” and then find the unlabeled graphical icon that looks like three upper torsos, and click that.) Thus, CUNYfirst is a fabulous online version of the Where’s Waldo books.
What’s your response?
A: Working out little things like the questions described above are part of what makes the system so interactive!
Honestly, we just don’t know when everyone became so averse to rolling their sleeves up and doing some hard work! Some overthinking faculty members might call us “neoliberal” for saying this, but we all have to learn to do more with less. That’s just how our world works today. Especially at CUNY.
If we recall correctly, everyone loved Where’s Waldo – they even made it into a movie recently! In fact, this comparison perfectly encapsulates the spirit of CUNYfirst: childishly simple, yet simultaneously very, very complicated. It’s a children’s book come to life as a university-wide integrated IT educational business solution.
Q: Faculty have reported that when they go into the CUNYfirst section on “Payroll and Compensation,” and look up their “Compensation History,” they’re offered the chance to “Review compensation history for base, variable, and stock options.” [Editor’s note: We did not make this up.] Based on the performance of CUNYfirst, do you think purchasing shares in CUNY would be a wise investment?
A: This is exactly the sort of whimsical touch that makes CUNYfirst such a magical experience for users. A whole afternoon can fly by as you wander the labyrinth of menus and find yourself in all sorts of unexpected places – like this one!
As for the question of CUNY stock; we’ve got a great feeling about that! With the current nation-wide trend of sky-rocketing tuition plus an overwhelmingly business-minded Board of Trustees, we have no doubt that creating value for shareholders would be CUNY’s top priority!
Q: When does it all get better?
A: The future is now. What we need is a 180-degree change of attitude, to reconceptualize what “better” means – so that we can discover that we’re already there.
Sadly, just before Clarion went to press the @CUNYfrist parody account was suspended by Twitter – most likely because someone with a thin skin filed a complaint that it was in violation of Twitter’s formal rule against “Impersonation.”
Attorneys from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the ACLU and other civil liberties groups have often noted that parody, satire and social comment have broad protections under the First Amendment. Indeed, “temporarily ‘impersonating’ corporations and public officials has become an important and powerful form of political activism, especially online,” a 2010 EFF statement points out.
The anonymous figure(s) behind @CUNYfrist told Clarion that they are working to get the tongue-in-cheek account restored.
Meanwhile, even though @CUNYfrist is (temporarily?) missing from Twitter, it lives on in its Google cache. The most recent tweet recorded there is appropriate: after another Twitter user exclaimed, “Ha! To think that CUNYfirst has a parody account,” @CUNYfrist insisted, with digital deadpan, that there’s “Nothing funny abt dynamic IT solution for realtime edu environment.”
To that, we can only say “ : ) ”
Clarion will be proud to host a live Twitter chat with the figures behind the viral success of @CUNYfrist. The conversation will take place Thursday, October 23, at 5:00 pm. You’re invited to join us: follow @PSC_CUNY, and look for the hashtag “#FreeCf”.
News Coverage: CUNYfirst’s Breakdown