What’s a Database: Tufts university prints $40,000 worth of iClass ID cards to avoid altering their schema

Everything needs a number today. When you upload a picture to Facebook, it gets assigned a UID or Unique Identification number. When you attend a University, you get assigned a UID number.


Tufts University calls it a “Student ID Number.” Simple enough. Previously it was a nine digit number (9912xxxxx), which you used for a variety of purposes. It was printed on the front of your student ID card. It was used pretty much anytime you paid a bill, or attended some horrible orientation lecture.

To keep track of all this crap, the university used a “Student Information System,” affectionately named “fucking SIS.” We called it this because of its wide variety of features, including closing down for 2-15 hours per day because “The function you requested has been removed for this time period.” (What was actually happening was the entirety of the information was being re-printed to tractor paper, copied by monks onto hand written scrolls, and backed up on stereo Cassette tapes for security using vintage Amiga decks.)

Well, all good things must come to an end, unfortunately, and in 2013 “fucking SIS” was replaced with “fucking iSIS.” This new “Integrated” Student Information System is a classic PeopleSoft/Oracle $300,000 cop out, which was then thoroughly bastardized by Tufts’ inept set of Microsoft CGI coding heathens into the now-online final product, which can be found at (not the thoroughly illogical http://isis.tufts.edu but the logical) http://go.tufts.edu/isis. It was called integrated because you no longer had to hire Monks to copy information on scrolls before re-entering it on other Tufts software.

What could be wrong with that, you ask? Well, every Student Information System has to store the Student Information somehow. (They won’t teach you about this at Tufts Computer Science department, but) the program used to store that information is called a “database.” When you store things in a database, you typically store it in a “table.” Each table has a number of columns, and the definition of those is called the table’s “schema.” (Why? Not sure. Just is.)

Now that we’ve been through the vocab, we’ll talk about how that applies here. One table in that database will be called “Users.” In that table will be columns, such as “First Name,” “Address,” and “Student ID Number.” Each of those will have a type as well, like “number” or “variable length set of characters up to 50 characters” (varchar(50)).

At some point, Tufts informed the students that we would be receiving new ID numbers. This is a horribly disastrous move, because then all your old data is mapped to a different ID number. Regardless, the excuse I heard tossed around was “Tufts has run out of ID numbers, so they need more of them.” That is a more acceptable rationale for spending $40,000 on cards plus the ink and labor to print and distribute them (although it would imply that at some point 999,999,999 students will have been through this school). So why have I suddenly realized the jig is up? Because Tufts new ID cards are now being released, and besides having a slightly different picture of the gigantic elephant, the ID numbers are in fact two characters SHORTER than the old ID numbers.

The only reason they printed new ID numbers was because they couldn’t figure out how to make the new software work with the old numbers. Good job, Tufts!

Image from Caroline Geiling / The Tufts Daily

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