The Past, Present, and Future of Software Serving the Academy

Kuali Days Keynote Address
White River Ballroom
J.W. Marriott Hotel
Indianapolis, Indiana
November 16, 2011

Acknowledgements

Let me begin by thanking Jennifer Foutty, Executive Director of the Kuali Foundation, for inviting me to speak to you today. I would also like to recognize the board members of the Kuali Foundation, who have joined us today as well.

Thinking Differently

Last month the world paused at the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs. Almost everyone in this audience, and millions of people around the world, have been touched by the ideas and products of his work at Apple, Pixar, and Next.

Why?

Simply stated, “He thought differently.”

Steve Jobs looked at the same problems and opportunities as others. He looked at the same trends in small screens, batteries, materials sciences as others. He looked at the same challenges in desktop computing, laptops, music, mobile phones, and tablets as others.

Yet, he thought differently . . . and in doing so, he changed the world.

Today, I am delighted to be here with so many leaders in higher education who also dare to think—and act—differently.

The opportunities and challenges confronting colleges and universities require that we do just that.

Software in the Academy

Barry Walsh first approached me in 2003 about the possibility of an open source financial information system.

I confess that from the beginning I thought this was a remarkably sensible idea, in part because it was a model with which I was very familiar as a computer scientist. In computer science, the development of software for some scientific purpose that is then made freely available to the broader research community for application or enhancement and improvement has been the standard way of working since the earliest days of computing.

The first program I used in my research as a beginning graduate student was developed this way and was made freely available to anyone in the world who wanted it. The research group in which I was then working developed it in new ways, all of which in turn we made freely available to any other researchers who wanted it.

Later, I co-authored a book based on research derived from an artificial intelligence computer program that the co-authors and I developed to prove theorems in mathematical logic and which we made freely available. For all I know this program is still being used in some form.

This model of software development is not new.

Not only is it used in computer science, but it is being used in nearly every other scientific and scholarly discipline. It is variously called the open source or community source model.

What was basically new, with Barry’s idea, was to use this model for a core university administrative system, and there is nothing more core than an institution’s financial information system. For academics, a critical bug or compiling error can put the work of students and researchers temporarily on hold. However, a problem with a critical administrative system can have much broader consequences. For example, people do not get paid!

The previous year, we had begun to establish the Sakai Consortium with Stanford, MIT, and the University of Michigan to develop a community source course management system and this project had given us some confidence. But important as a course management system is, it is still not as core as the systems that ensure people are paid or that keep the auditable financial books for a multi-billion dollar university.

My sense was that this same concept of developing, sharing, and maintaining critical computer code as a community could also work for complex administrative systems.

But if we were to make it work and expand it to many universities, we would have to answer some very important questions: questions about maintaining the integrity of the software, determining who would have permission to modify it; after we developed the first version, how would it be sustained; and who would provide support when institutions needed help?

Let me say clearly that we did not know the answers to all of these questions.

Of course, we had ideas and had thought about the economics, but those ideas would have to be proven true if this new path for administrative systems was to work.

The educational and research missions of the university were at the heart of this decision as were the economics of developing administrative software at a scale that would reduce costs for all participating institutions.

At the time we were considering this decision, IU was completing a large-scale re-engineering of its Student Information and HR systems transitioning to PeopleSoft. That transition was successful, but it was not without significant cost, and I was in a first-hand position to see how much the purchase, implementation, and ultimately the support of these off-the-shelf systems actually cost.

Once we made this transition, we began to consider the future of our financial information system, which we had developed ourselves but which was getting close to ten years old, and so we began to explore alternatives for its eventual replacement. Some of the options we considered were to turn to commercial products like PeopleSoft’s financial information system, to carry out a major upgrade of our own system, or to work collaboratively with other universities, sharing cost and risk by creating a new financial information system that would suit their needs as well.

Recent developments in information technology caused some involved who are in this room to “think differently” about the future of these critical systems. Internet2 and Regional Optical Networks were increasingly providing the connectivity among universities, and these high performance digital networks had greatly accelerated the work of informal software communities. Internet tools were maturing and encouraging collaboration, and we had already observed the growing success of Linux as an operating system and Apache as the dominant web server software.

At issue was whether universities could take the steps necessary to harness these new tools, pool our resources, agree on a system design, and then make it happen.

I believed that we could.

Sakai had given us confidence not only that it would work but that we could get funding for such a consortial effort.

IU leaders in finance also believed we could.

Let me commend, in particular, then-CFO Judy Palmer and Kathleen McNeely, both of whom were supporters of this initiative from the outset. Both of them understood the need for a financial information system that would run without a proliferation of shadow systems, and commercial products were less capable of achieving this goal than our own aging financial information system given people had experience with it and were used to it.

Another factor arose around this time that influenced our decision to support a multi-university, open source approach. As we were considering our plans, I received an offer from a commercial vendor to give IU a “free” license to a financial system though this did not include the years of obligatory maintenance costs that would follow. The vendor suggested that universities really didn’t need to replicate what was already available for purchase on the market. Rather than being tempted by this offer, I was convinced by it that we were on to something that would make a difference for higher education.

A commercial offer of a free financial system if we wouldn’t join together to make an open source system for universities—in my mind, that doubly confirmed that we should collaborate with other universities, drawing on own institutional expertise to tailor the systems we needed and to take care of our own interests.

And you know much of the history that followed, and the events that bring us here today.

The Community Raises the Bar

I could share more background, but the most important thing from my perspective now as president is that your software code works!

IU went live with some of the Kuali Financial modules in 2009, and we will complete our migration next year.

We now use Kuali Coeus for grants administration from faculty member to submission to grants.gov.

We use Kuali Ready for Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity Planning, and I have recently consolidated cyber security, physical security, environmental safety and a number of other offices under a single university officer who oversees an All Threats perspective.

I use Kuali Mobile on my iPhone that pushes a variety of our systems to mobile devices, and last year, IU routed and approved over 2 million electronic business transactions using the workflow from Kuali Rice.

IU is also participating with you in a number of other Kuali projects that are in development.

I recite this list because all of these meetings and the buzz about Kuali do not matter if the software does not meet university needs.

Period.

Working software is the minimum bar for credibility and further investment.

The most remarkable aspect of Kuali is that it far exceeds that minimum bar at the same time as it further strengthens the community of researchers, software designers, and many of the actual system users who have worked together over the years to create these systems.

In my years in higher education, I have observed many models for multi-institution and multi-national collaboration. Some work better than others. Some retreat into self-perpetuating ritual while others draw out ideas, passion, and resources. Some consume themselves with busy-ness while other demonstrate truly remarkable outcomes that benefit all participants.

What I see in your work is remarkable.

The numbers are quite compelling:

  • Well over $50M investment across 8 distinct projects
  • 72 investing institutions and firms in one or more projects
  • 61 members of the Kuali Foundation including 10 commercial firms
  • Real implementations at big and small institutions
  • 175 mailing lists and wikis to coordinate parts of the work
  • And almost 1,500 on the Kuali-All-Hands community list.

It defies expectation that a not-for-profit legal entity with 4-5 staff members could reasonably enable the complex work of so many institutions and people. But the success of this community is not just in its structure but also in the people in this room and at your institutions. I know from observing the work at IU, that people put in tremendous hours with great passion. They care about their work and take pride in it.

Again, I observe that this pattern of staff collaboration in Kuali reflects the time-tested values of the university where teams of researchers from multiple institutions collaborate on the frontiers of medicine, physics, and many other areas of research and scholarship.

Kuali’s collaborative approach embraces the values of the academy.

Looking Ahead: Networks and Clouds

Universities face many opportunities and challenges as we continue our unending work of re-fitting our institutions to an evolving world.

In fact, the genius of great universities—institutions that have lasted longer than just about any other in human history—is their ability to adapt while preserving their fundamental missions of education and research.

We can see that genius from the ancient learned institutions of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and the great medieval universities of Europe: Oxford, Cambridge, and the Universities of Bologna and Paris.

That these institutions have remained in continuous operation for almost a millennium emphatically confirms the enduring and adaptive nature of the educational endeavor that we continue to celebrate.

Compare these institutions to corporations.

One of the oldest corporations—now Sweden’s largest producer of electricity—dates back to 1288 whereas a number of universities in places like India, Egypt (Al-Azhar University founded in 970~972), and Morocco (University of Al-Karaouine founded in 859) date well before that time and lasted for centuries. Susceptible to fluctuating markets, economic downturns, and the like, even the strongest corporations are vulnerable and will always act in their own self interests in order to survive.

Given the choice between the two, I would bet on universities to survive because of their adherence to their fundamental missions and their ability to evolve.

With this in mind, I want to conclude by turning to the future and encouraging the leaders who have gathered here today to look beyond past successes and present work. How can we think differently given the decade ahead for higher education?

As Steven Jobs assembled software, a touchscreen, WiFi, and a battery to create the iPad, what are the emerging elements that we might assemble to aid our universities as we adapt to a changing world?

Can and should we use the momentum of this community to think differently?

We know for a certainty that the capacity of digital networks among U.S. institutions is growing by orders of magnitude. For instance, Internet2 will complete the U.S. Universal Community Anchor Network or US UCAN in 2012, which will have 100 gigabit capacity. In fact, the new Internet2 network has the capacity for 88 of these or 8.8 terabits.

The technical details of this do not matter, but what we can do with such capacity among our institutions does matter. The economics of local servers and small data centers will face enormous challenges when economies of scale become essential for efficiency.

Some suggest that “The Cloud”—and particularly the commercial cloud—will solve our problems. But reflecting for a minute on the fundamental university missions of education and research, which focus on the creation, preservation, and dissemination of information and knowledge.

Such information and knowledge are essential resources for universities.

What happens when we turn to the Cloud and lose control of these resources?

If we outsource responsibility for these resources, outsource storage of the information and knowledge that we create, who will be interested in the long-term curatorial tasks associated with those resources? This turn to the Cloud sounds very similar to the promises of the past 15 years for big ERP systems that ultimately proved to be very expensive and quite constraining over time.

Even The Economist writes about the need “for computing firms not to fall back on bad old habits by trying to lock in customers as computing becomes a utility . . . and supplied [in the cloud] as a service”1, and that problem only gets worse as firms become distracted by buying and selling each other over time, or turn to the next money-making venture.

The term “Cloud” does raise the possibility of aggregation and efficiency among institutions in terms of software and services. With our own vast networking capacity, our own open source software systems like Kuali, and our community of Kuali Commercial Affiliates who provide services around the open software, we should consider the remarkable possibilities that combining these could have for our future.

How might our institutions assemble our collective resources to generate economies of scale by creating our own “cloud” tailored to our own needs?

Could we not create a cloud that protects our interests over the next decade and beyond and that preserves for the long-term the information and knowledge that we have created and continue to create?

By combining our own resources, or contracting for them at scale in models like Internet2 is doing with its Net+ services, universities could avoid the loss of control and arduous ERP contracting and mergers that consumed much of the past 15 years—and much of our finance.

Conclusion: Making the Argument

A final question that all of this raises, is how do you persuade yourselves and others making decisions at your institutions to seriously consider open source community software as a legitimate contender for some of your institutions’ most vital systems.

My answer to that question is shaped by my years as a vice president for information technology, a chief information officer, vice president for research, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and a university president.

The argument is simple: open source community software has been at the core of university research since the advent of computing and it is increasingly at the core of administration at a growing number of universities.

It is more than just Kuali and Sakai but includes Apache server software and hundreds of other open source systems.

So:

  • The open source model works for research and administration.
  • The model represents the best in collaborative efforts between and among universities.
  • The model draws on the finest experts from across the country and around the world.
  • And ultimately, the model saves all of us money.

This short talk may raise more questions than it answers, but I remind you that there were similar unanswered questions when we first started discussing what has now become Kuali.

Now we see how the actions of the institutions gathered here and the hard work of the people involved have answered those questions to our great mutual benefit.

Source Notes

  1. “Clash of the Clouds.” The Economist 2 April 2009. www.economist.com. Accessed 14 November 2011.