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.

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