Commercial Kuali: Is Their New Path the Right Path?

Community-source software is only as successful as the community that builds it.

-Kuali Foundation Website

In a previous post I stated that one of the strengths of Kuali was its commercial support model in conjunction with its community. At that time, I wrote that an engaged, enthusiastic community of members whose jobs are often on the line, working to improve the product in conjunction with a healthy ecosystem of commercial entities to support the software is a better strategic risk than relying on very expensive support contracts from understaffed proprietary support teams forcing you to:

  1. Buy Low Information Support Contracts
  2. Call into Knowledge Free Support Centers

This community driven dynamic may be set to change very soon with an interesting announcement from Kuali HQ on Friday August 22, 2014.  This announcement could drastically alter the face of the Kauli Community…and I am not sure for the better.  Kuali the open source or as they call it, community source higher ed administrative software is creating a commercial wing.   More specifically they have hired former Instructure CTO Joel Dehlin as their founding CEO and are set to fork Kuali code under the AGPL licensing format  to purportedly achieve  the following:

  • ·         Increasing the speed of product development/delivery
  • ·         Complete Kuali Student and Kuali HR
  • ·         Improving the usability of Kuali products, particularly for students and faculty
  • ·         Improving the sustainability of each product economically

Will the impact of creating a for-profit version of Kuali be good or bad? Only time will tell.  However, I always get a queasy feeling when money becomes the guiding factor for an education project, and that is really what is happening here.

My overall observation is that the 10-year-old Kuali project seems to have hit a bit of a lull in new adoptions. Partly is because institutions such as mine provide the next ‘wave of growth’ potential and most are unwilling to listen to the Kuali talk when there is not a Kuali Walk…aka a complete suite of tools with which one can operate the entire institution.  It is a deal breaker for the 4000ish small to mid-sized institutions in the US alone.  

As a higher ed practitioner, I have always been a fan of open source projects.  I have written blog post after blog post on this topic. I have said my dream is to open source the entire enterprise. Here is picture of my dream.

Kent's open source dream

In 2004 I moved my first institution to Moodle, thus starting a personal love affair with open source software for the enterprise.  Subsequently, I  have had the opportunity to work at one additional Moodle institution and have moved the enterprise phone systems at two institutions to Digium,  the commercially supported version of Asterisk. I am in the middle of supporting a roll out of Drupal and I have written post after post on the advantages of adopting an open source philosophy.   

Although my current institution’s core Administrative System is Ellucian’s Colleague I also have also started to drink the Kuali Koolaid by working to bring the advantages of Kuali Rice (Workflow) and Kuali Coeus (Grants/Research Administration)

I would like to be enthusiastic about the news reported on the Kuali website, but frankly, as soon as you create a for profit-entity you weaken or maybe even destroy the biggest arguments you have been making for the last 10 years such as:  

  • No vendor lock in.
  • No licensing fees.
  • Community is our greatest asset.

Money has risen above community in Kuali and software for higher ed by higher education is looking to become software for higher education by corporate America.

I had actually budgeted money for my institution, Casper College, to become a Kuali Community Member this year.  However, what I am hearing from the August 22, 2014 Kuali announcement is that public money I  invest as a community member will (at least in part) be going to help create a for profit entity per the statement in Friday’s announcement:

The Foundation will provide initial capital for the company out of its reserves

(which came from public monies). Future investment will come from individuals aligned with Kuali’s mission and interested in long-term dividends. There is no plan for an IPO or an acquisition.

They also state:

From where will company revenue come?

  • Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings of Kuali’s portfolio of software systems.  Included in these are Finance, Student, HR/Payroll, Research, Library, and Disaster Recovery products.
  • Schools can continue to participate by contributing cash to individual Kuali projects to speed them up.
  • Contract development services for software related to Kuali’s mission.

I have many questions, not limited to  the following:

Does this speeding up development outweigh the fact that public monies will be used to finance (at least partially) a for profit entity?

  1. Why would I give them money to help finance a for-profit company?
  2. Is there suddenly two boards… Kuali Foundation Board & Kuali Money Maker Board?
  3. Does the Foundation Board really have input if profit motive is now involved?
  4. How will commerical support be impacted if there is a drastic cutback in the role of the commercial affiliates (KCA’s)?
  5. Does accelerated development only occur if new interest in the revamped project accelerates new participation.  

There are still a lot more questions than those listed above and the entertainment value of the discussion at Kuali Days 2015  just ratcheted up a notch or two. What is an institution to do?  I am happy for now that I had other priorities which prevented me from signing on as member as what I would have signed up for on July 22nd  is drastically different than what was announced on August 22nd.  For now, I am going to wait for this to pan out and for a few questions to be answered, but I can’t help but think the best advice for now is…Buyer Beware.

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