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January 5, 2010, 12:00 PM ET

In Potential Blow to Open-Source Software, Mellon Foundation Closes Grant Program

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is closing a grant program that financed a series of high-profile university software projects, leaving some worried about a vacuum of support for open-source ventures.

Mellon’s decade-old Research in Information Technology program, or RIT, helped bankroll a catalog of freely available software that includes Sakai, a course-management system used by Stanford University and the University of Michigan; Kuali, a financial-management program recently rolled out at Colorado State University; and Zotero, a program for managing research sources used by millions.

Now the foundation plans to eliminate the RIT program as a stand-alone entity, a move that was scheduled to take effect Monday, according to a December letter to grantees obtained by The Chronicle.

Mellon described the change as part of an effort to "consolidate resources" and concentrate on core program areas like the liberal arts, scholarly communications, and museums. RIT will merge into the Scholarly Communications program, which will manage its existing grants. Ira H. Fuchs, RIT’s founder, says his position has been eliminated, as has that of Christopher J. Mackie, RIT’s associate program officer.

“It might lead to a reduction in funding for people that want to build large-scale open-source software programs for education,” says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University who reported the changes on his blog last month.

Don Waters, Mellon’s program officer for Scholarly Communications and the author of the December letter, did not return a phone call by deadline. Asked what the move would mean for the future, Mr. Fuchs says, "I think that remains to be determined. The honest answer is I don’t know."

RIT spent some $50-million or $60-million since it was established in 2000, according to Mr. Fuchs. One longtime Mellon grantee, Bradley C. Wheeler of Indiana University at Bloomington, says the investments “will prove transformative for higher education.” Had Mellon not stepped in to help set up Sakai, colleges choosing course-management systems would face a “highly monopolistic pricing situation,” he says.

The closure shouldn’t be read as a sign of the foundation divorcing itself from technology, adds Mr. Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Bloomington and chairman of Kuali's board. Indeed, the Scholarly Communications division will be renamed to explicitly reflect that “technology-based grantmaking is part of its mandate,” according to Mr. Waters's letter.

“I do see Mellon refocusing its IT investments more closely to what they view as the core scholarship of the academy,” says Mr. Wheeler. “That means things that have to do with research and education, more so than things like administrative systems.”

Mellon invested $2.4-million in Sakai, but the founding four universities put in an even greater amount toward the software-development collaboration, Mr. Wheeler notes. The Kuali Foundation's various projects have received more than $6.5-million from Mellon. The financial-software project is "economically viable on its own," Mr. Wheeler says, with a dozen sustaining investors who contribute the equivalent of about $125,000 a year.

But while Mr. Wheeler was ready to declare victory, one outside observer was more cautious.

"I would tactfully say these are still early stage," says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, noting that Sakai is gaining traction while the Kuali projects are less far along. "The story's not over."

In the small world of foundations that finance higher-ed technology, especially open-education projects, the story is all about one word right now: transition.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the dominant source of foundation money for open-education content projects, also went through major personnel changes, Mr. Wiley notes. And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is closing its online-education grant program.


1. stevefoerster - January 05, 2010 at 06:01 pm

Bradley C. Wheeler says that had Mellon not stepped in to help set up Sakai, colleges choosing course-management systems would face a “highly monopolistic pricing situation.”

Right, like he's never heard of Moodle? Many more institutions use it than use Sakai, even though it doesn't have a gigantic foundation behind it. I'm not saying that big grants can't make a big difference, but it doesn't necessarily require one for there to be open source software that's useful in education.

2. johnh50 - January 05, 2010 at 06:22 pm

First, you don't know that more "institutions" use Moodle than Sakai. The number of Moodle installs promoted by Moodle only means someone installed it and clicked a register button. Anyone can buy a $5 hosting account and install Moodle through an auto-installer -- and millions of "individuals" do.

I think this is a real blow to the development of quality, safe, secure open source software. Have you ever heard of anything like what is illustrated in the video below happen in Sakai? And that is only the most recent of many Moodle security issues.

Yea, Moodle is free, but you may just be getting what you pay for. Hopefully the founding universities and other supporting partners will continue to fund and support Sakai -- not everyone is willing to "take the Moodle plunge". At least, I don't think we will be incorporating Moodle on our campus anytime soon.


3. scoffie - January 05, 2010 at 07:26 pm

To be fair, the Moodle developers have addressed this security issue already. Blackboard has a similar issue which they are addressing as well. Sakai is not immune from any number of exploits either. I think the bigger issue is that Open source needs to find a new way to fund itself without becoming the next oppressive system that we must endure... I idealistically imagine a hybrid of the best aspects of both the closed and open code world - clopen source- as the new business and creative collaboration model.

4. 11186108 - January 05, 2010 at 09:02 pm

Moodle isn't actually "free" if you consider TCO. I think you'll find many "institutions" (4 year colleges and universities" that have adopted, or are adopting, Moodle as their LMS. Nothing against Sakai, but it isn't the only Open Source LMS.

5. ianboston - January 06, 2010 at 04:28 am

There should be no disrespect to Moodle which *is* a great LMS and hits a real sweet spot for many institutions, but I want to clarify where Sakai is targetted, and where it is now.

Its both a learning environment in the traditional sense but also a collaboration environment supporting groups of researchers, small teaching groups, distirbuted teams as well as traditional course based teaching. If you look at some of the communities that it serves this becomes obvious. Its also not the only Open Source offering in this area and I have heard of Moodle being used in the same way, outside its own comfort zone.

Secondly, the initial Sakai project was funded by Mellon, but there has been no funding for Sakai from Mellon for several years. The Sakai Foundation that the first comment mentions was setup mainly as a reaction to long term sustainability, and provides a not for profit body to own the code copyright. In many senses its very simular to the Apache Software Foundation. The Sakai Foundation is funded by donations from Educational Institutions and Corporations and a very limited revenue stream from running conferences. I suspect that the organization behind Moodle has more revenue and is larger and better funded than the Sakai Foundation, but I havent looked at their accounts.

I will admit, I am completely biased having been involved in Sakai for many years but not as a part of the initial Mellon funded team. I also know only to well that everyone who writes software makes mistakes and one of the huge benefits of open source is that its possible for everyone to see those mistakes, and correct them. The best protector we have of great quality software is not in the software or individuals, but in the resiliance of the community that supports that software.

The RIT announcement is like loosing an old friend in this space as there are many things that is has provided initial seed funding for that have gone on to create great, self sustaining communities in education and certainly it has increased innovation and reduced costs for all with many other sucessful projects. If there was somewhere I could send flowers of condolance, I would.

6. blog21 - January 06, 2010 at 10:42 am

I thought Sakai and other open source projects were a wave of the future. If, it turns out, they have to bank-rolled and still don't succeed, then it's clear it may not be a sustainable model. Sure, commercial products might cost the university a bit more, but it seems open source may cost as well -- it's just funded differently.

One other issues I've always had with open source in academics:

OSS initiatives assume that we in the academic space will give of our time freely to further these products, allowing actual cash funding for technology to be reduced. To me, it's like grade-school teachers who buy their own pens and other supplies because the district cut back on funding. Advancing open source has always put a bit more of burden on ITS departments to do more with their "free" time, rather than funding purchasing of commercial products (or supplies, or whatever) and allowing us to focus on how to use those products in teaching and learning.

There are, of course, other benefits to open source -- many more eyes on the code, ability to adapt the product to your specific needs, etc. -- but these could (theoretically) be met on the backs of commercial products if they were made more open with APIs and a better community development/support initiative (something we should all press our commercial partners to do).

I don't mean to completely dissmiss open source, I just didn't realize it was subsidized overtly, although I always knew it was subsidized covertly through people's passion and time to improve the products, often on their free time.

7. elc8910 - January 06, 2010 at 11:47 am

Since I'm quoted in the article and there are a number of misunderstandings in the comments posted thus far, let me add a few points.

1. The few sentences here attributed to me are drawn from a longer interview. Anyone who tracks my writing or speaking knows that I frequently include Moodle, JASIG, DuraCloud, etc. in my remarks regarding the success of community efforts. Recall that some of Mellon's RIT investments date back to 2001, 02, and 03 when there were few broad successes anywhere in open source *application* software...including software that is specialized to the needs of higher education. Thank heavens higher ed has thriving communities in Moodle and Sakai to meet one of our core software needs.

2. Blog21 reveals a number of misunderstandings that persist regarding how open source communities actually work. There is no ongoing bankrolling of Sakai from Mellon or anyone else. The two year development grant for Sakai and launching its community ended in 2005, and everything since then has been supported by the worldwide community. Some simply consume the software using its free license and others contribute time design or quality testing or actual code. For many contributors, they find the costs of doing this is less than other options and the value for their institutions is greater. Commercial SaaS offerings of Sakai, Moodle, and some Kuali apps is an effective way of reducing local IT expertise needs and paying for a fee-for-service contract. Offers for this abound.

3. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are not the same entity, though I also embrace mgozaydin's appeal for the merits of Open Educational Resources and open courses/courseware (or small fee) whenever we can.

4. And I'll join my good friend Casey Green in saying the story is not over. Community projects don't need to hit X% of market share or profit margin of Y to declare victory. Many of our collective efforts, including Connexions for content and HathiTrust for books, are creating extraordinary value for those who are using them. IU saved well over $15M of real dollars by doing Kuali Financials instead of a commercial path. That is money left for scholarships, research, and education. Higher education has learned how to pool our money, synch our needs, and delver enterprise-grade software and services that meet our needs. Collectively, across all that has been accomplished in the last decade (part of it with Mellon's help), I stand by my declaration of victory for those who chose to be beneficiaries.

5. The headline was likely chosen for shock value and has little real alignment with the story. It worked. ;-) Stay tuned for more announcements next week.

--Brad Wheeler

8. johnking - January 06, 2010 at 02:33 pm

Sakai started from a research project building computer-based support for distributed collaborative work among scientists. People working with the infrastructure noticed that many university courses are instances of distributed collaborative work, and remapped the "work" tools from the research project to be "course" tools for courses. Sakai is widely seen as an LMS, but it is a lot more than that. In some institutions there are more non-course uses of Sakai than course-based uses. Sakai lends itself to such uses given its origins. The other LMS did not originate in this way, and are not used much in this way.

Why get wrapped around the axle about whether one kind of origin is superior to others? Very large commercial organizations have been started with money from the intelligence community because the intelligence community needed what such organizations could do. The organizations later grew into commercial giants because everyone else needed what they could do, too. The question should be, what can these organizations do for people now?

John King, Michigan

9. rpickett - January 06, 2010 at 06:49 pm

While individuals may offer opinions on the value of a particular project, without a doubt the RIT program of the Andrew Mellon Foundation stimulated a considerable amount of development in a number of areas. These projects, even if potentially duplicative of existing applications, would have found it difficult to obtain external funding to facilitate development.

The breadth of these projects, from courseware to student systems, facilitated the expansion of collaborative work across education. We have all benefited, even if we haven't individually been involved in these efforts.

A number of key universities and colleges have also helped in the financial support of these projects and I hope other organizations are able to assist in the future.

My thanks to Ira, his staff, and of course the Andrew Mellon Foundation, for contributing significant funding to these efforts over the past many years.

Rich Pickett, SDSU

10. drchuck - January 06, 2010 at 09:26 pm

As a member of the Sakai project funded by the Mellon RIT effort during 2004-2005, I just want to make a few simple comments.

The RIT program was extremely well thought out and very well run. It picked projects that needed a little "oomph" to go to the next level. If we look at Sakai from 2004-2009, the overall investment of the community easily averages $4-5 million of donated money and effort investing in the collective good of the product which totals about $25 million of cash and in-kind investment. The RIT money was $2.4 million and it was spent in 2004 and 2005. From that point forward, the project and foundation has been self-sustaining. Getting the money from RIT was not nearly as important as the marketing value of being part of the RIT portfolio. Since RIT had an excellent track record, the market assumed that every RIT-funded project had a pretty good chance of success. This assumption that Sakai would be a success is why Sakai moved from 4 to over 100 members in 2004. By mid-2005, Sakai was self-sustianing - not because of the RIT money- but because of the RIT *brand*.

Thanks to Ira and Chris for their careful management of the RIT program over the years. I certainly learned a lot in my conversations with Ira and Chris and the other RIT program awardees. Getting all of these projects together to talk periodically was yet another positive intangible benefit of the RIT program.

The positive effect of RIT goes well beyond the money that was awarded and well beyond the projects that received the money. Because of the timely investments, higher education developed a belief that we *can* build commercial-quality production software and share it across universities.

Perhaps as we celebrate the success of RIT and its progeny and are saddened that the program is ending, this is an opportunity for something new to emerge that is informed by the successes of the past and can take a fresh approach in ways that can move self-governed academic-led open source projects to the next level. It always seems like the right ideas have a way of working themselves out.

Charles Severance
University of Michigan

11. jfoutty - January 11, 2010 at 08:46 am

The Kuali Foundation Board of Directors would like to address some of the misperceptions here and clarify some key points, including the ability of the Kuali projects to sustain themselves on an ongoing basis. The official response of the Kuali Board to this article can be found here: https://kuali.org/node/265

Many thanks to Mellon RIT for their investment in Kuali during its start-up phase.

Jennifer Foutty
Executive Director, Kuali Foundation

12. pasteele - January 21, 2010 at 02:59 pm

Thanks to Jennifer for her clarification. As one of the recipients of the recent Mellon investment in Kuali OLE I believe that the interpretation that open source funding from Mellon is a closed book is incorrect. Libraries are getting support and I expect further investment in the academic enterprise. In this day and age, that will mean continued investment in technology and open source. There is much work to be done and I think that Mellon will continue to be our partners in getting it done.
Patricia A. Steele
Dean of Libraries
University of Maryland

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