Dear Sakai Colleagues,
Starbucks, Unicef, Apple, Westfield’s, Rotary Club, McDonalds …what does a brand mean? For better or worse, brands are shorthand for a promise of confidence, value, quality, and expectations. Thus, what will the brand Apereo mean? More importantly, how will it achieve it...and for whom?
Thus far, we’ve heard a lot about openness and community – we all like those outcomes. Efficiencies in back office accounting and staff (one less Executive Director) – efficiency is good. More efficient deployment of staff resources – hmmm…staff resources at the foundation level have always been pretty thin relative to projects’ needs and resources. Coming together and working together – again, great stuff…but how and why will 32 pages of new by-laws in the state of Delaware cause that good outcome when it hasn’t been happening much among projects thus far?
My concern with this proposed merger in this format is not its aspiration (I know a bit about aspiration and idealism myself). Rather, I see little persuasive evidence to believe the elements are present for those aspirations to be achieved over time via this proposal. I respect that other deeply committed, hard-working, and caring members of these communities feel differently.
I’ll share a bit more here of why I have those concerns.
I’ll state for the record that I wear a lot of different hats. I’m a Sakai co-founder from the very dinner in September 2003 where the idea took shape . I’m also ultimately responsible for the IT systems that serve IU’s eight campuses including our deep use of Sakai. I’m a business school professor who frames much of this through the lens of economics and sustainability. Before Sakai had finished its Mellon grant with its 2.1 release, IU also thought this community development concept was a pretty good idea. We pitched in millions for community development of a financial system (with others) that became the Kuali Foundation for administrative system stuff. It now has eight pretty disparate projects and communities. Some have speculated that all these roles may cloud my view on the proposed merger, and I can’t change what folks want to think. I’ll offer, however, that I think it provides a lot of clarity for what it really takes to create and sustain many different types of communities that translate their good collaborative work into real, timely, and strong outcomes for colleges and universities (and a few others too).
It is that latter point that has really focused my concerns in the recent months. We’ve not heard much about colleges and universities (institutions) lately. Recent posts and documents understandably say a lot about the merits of the legal entity and coming together. Not much has really been said or sorted about how those projects will garner the resources and work together towards making the Apereo brand and projects have meaning beyond a shared back office and a conference.
As I understand it, this coming together has left a lot of discretion to each of the individual projects. They can each choose their own software license, their own brands, their own culture, and their own resources model. They might share some common infrastructure for wikis and code repositories, but it’s not yet clear how that all gets paid for (and it's not cheap). Foundation dues are one possible way, but membership classes between the two organizations remain a compromise too, and IU’s Jasig + Sakai dues should be less, not more, which reduces some foundation revenue. Will projects that gather up investment pools of cash be taxed by the foundation to pay for shared services from projects that raise no cash? We already know to an absolute certainty that integrating code across projects and synchronizing multi-project needs is darned hard. Thus, if each project has its own independent rules and means of investment, if or how will any of that integration and re-use come about in any way than what is already quite possible right now?
What will Apereo mean as a brand to institutions if it has no real shared culture as a whole or means to coordinate/influence outcomes of many projects? Will it essentially mean SourceForge with dues and a conference? I do not say that to be harsh as SourceForge has been amazing in achieving what it does so well, but projects on SourceForge vary from high value to deserted toys. The SourceForge brand for a particular project does not convey a promise that in and of itself attracts resources, and in this case, we are asking colleges and universities (and others) to write checks to the common entity (Apereo) and hope for value from the varied projects that each have their own rules, culture, and finance.
Why work on a common entity merger for almost two years and still kick the can down the field regarding the hard decisions for software license and other shared values that could actually give the Apereo brand meaning? My understanding is because it is hard to reach agreement on this among disparate communities. If we can’t agree on even this now, how many other “community” challenges also remain unresolved and an impediment to achieving the vision?
We also aren’t hearing much clarity on how any of this gets resources into the projects that actually are the solutions for colleges and universities. One possibility is that many volunteers continue to deploy their great skills from the personal or institutional time to move things forward. We’ve seen a lot of great innovation happen that way, and enabling that was intrinsic in Sakai's conception.
We’ve also had broadly felt community needs in the core of the system or essential tools (e.g., tests and quizzes) struggle when no pool of resources enabled them to be addressed in a timely way. It's hard to plan semester roll outs and upgrades without a credible and resourced roadmap. As most institutions have tightened up their budgets during the global financial crisis, we also see fewer staff positions available that enable funded developers to contribute time to project priorities that may not align with local urgencies. A rising talent war for IT skills is bidding up wages and creating more shortages where institutions sometimes even struggle to fill open positions.
My friend Chuck Severance recently wrote “The Sakai CLE TCC now has a pool of resources. I know it feels a little weird.” I worry that his fairly articulate observation is indeed part of our problem, and it is made worse for Sakai, not better, by this merger (but a big THANKS to Ray and Blackboard for the CLE funds, and I’m actually very cool with BB becoming an SCA). Looking ahead, however, I’d like for that to feel a lot less weird for systems that are critical to the success at IU and many institutions. Sakai was founded on a model for the project and the foundation to do precisely that while enabling broad innovation and new ideas too. I believe the Sakai community must find a way back to that certainty for both its CLE (IU will be running CLE for several years and we continue to invest in it right now) and also OAE that provides a path for our future.
I've spoken at length with my friends and colleagues who champion this merger, and my understanding is they believe Apereo will enable Sakai's CLE, OAE, and all the other projects to define their resource models in any way they see fit. I agree that is possible, and higher ed absolutely needs an umbrella organization as a home for its many evolving or maturing projects. But a catch-all environment is not what institutions need for Sakai, and I personally see no credible basis for institutions to have confidence that Sakai's culture will continue to flourish if it is subsumed into Apereo. It takes shared assumptions, culture, and common values to make and sustain patterns of behavior among individuals, institutions, foundations, and governments to grow strong communities over the years. Apereo, as described thus far, offers no reinforcement of a common culture of "how we do things around here" while still enabling additional project variance that best enables a particular community.
We’ve heard thoughtful and aspirational views of how Apereo will become that shining light on a hill to draw us together. Dear friends and close colleagues, I’m not able to connect that desirable hope with the actual means to achieve it in what I’ve read thus far. This merger is not formulated to succeed for the Sakai community’s colleges and universities.
 From OSS-Watch, but the URL seems to have moved. "Sakai: A Case Study in Sustainability" IU Archive copy is at https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/6689/sakai_wheeler_2007.htm?sequence=4