Coursera has won powerful allies in higher education by persuading them that it plans to behave more like a university than an investor-backed Silicon Valley company.
Now Coursera has taken another step to bolster its academic bona fides. The company announced on Monday that it had hired Richard C. Levin, who led Yale University as president for 20 years, to serve as its chief executive.
Mr. Levin, an economist who stepped down last year, spent the later years of his presidency cultivating relationships overseas, notably with China and its universities. Mr. Levin also led a controversial effort to create a liberal-arts college in Singapore, Yale-NUS College.
Landing Mr. Levin could be a coup for Coursera, as the company looks to strengthen its reputation at home while navigating the knotty politics of international higher education.
Coursera, which rose to prominence as a provider of massive open online courses, has been trying to expand in China. This past fall the MOOC provider announced a deal with NetEase, a Chinese Internet company, to build a Chinese-language portal for its courses, and it has been working with local universities and organizations in several countries to improve its offerings to non-English-speaking learners.
The company’s international efforts have been complicated by politics. Some observers have speculated that Coursera’s reliance on such foreign infrastructure could make it possible for foreign governments to censor courses. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has blocked learners from viewing Coursera courses in countries that are subject to U.S. sanctions.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Levin said Coursera does "not intend to get into the censorship business." However, he added, "if a country tries to block access, or does block access, that’s a circumstance we can’t necessarily control."
Another ‘Public-Spirited Mission’
Mr. Levin is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group that has recently taken an interest in MOOCs. He is a board member of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and at American Express.
Coursera hopes Mr. Levin’s connections and business savvy "will help us grow in multiple target markets," said Andrew Ng, a computer scientist who founded Coursera in 2012 with Daphne Koller, a colleague at Stanford University.
The Coursera founders began courting the former Yale president in December, after Mr. Ng learned he was on sabbatical at Stanford, near Coursera’s office. Mr. Levin visited the office and soon began advising the founders.
Mr. Ng did not say what specific insights the Yale president emeritus had to offer, but he mentioned that they had discussed how Coursera could return more value to its partner universities.
Mr. Levin said he believes that Coursera shares a "public-spirited mission" with the universities upon whose content the company has built its business. Yet Coursera, which has raised at least $65-million in investment capital, still faces the challenge of generating enough revenue to support itself as a private company.
It also must continue to persuade its university partners, and their professors, that a Coursera partnership is worth their time and effort. The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers "verified" certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.
Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. "Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide," he told The Chronicle.
He added that the company planned to continue expanding Signature Track, its only significant revenue source, while exploring additional moneymaking strategies, such as content licensing. Coursera pays a percentage of the revenue generated by each course to the university that created it.
Mr. Levin, whose compensation will include an ownership stake in Coursera, is slated to assume the chief-executive role in mid-April. Ms. Koller will remain president of the company, and Mr. Ng will become chairman of the board.