This is a guest post by Jim Farmer. Apologies to Jim; this has been sitting in my inbox for a couple of weeks now.
“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.”
- Marc Parry, “In Potential Blow to Open-Source Software, Mellon Foundation Closes Grant Program,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 January 2010
A closer analysis suggests the Mellon Foundation’s “Research in Information Technology” had already met its objectives. This announcement should be an opportunity for reflection and appreciation of what was accomplished.
But the objectives of the RIT program were much broader than Parry’s open source software.
William Bowen, a Princeton economist, and then president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, concluded that colleges and universities should learn to collaborate and share resources to meet the needs of expanding student enrollments, constraints on public funding, and increasing volume of scholarly materials. Recognizing that new colleges and universities had no access to earlier journals and that academic libraries could not continue to physically accommodate all available journals, Bowen first initiated what was later known as JSTOR.
Roger C. Schonfeld’s excellent history documented organizational, technical, and financial issues. Ira Fuchs was asked to resolve the technical issues and Bowen focused on the organizational and financial issues. The success of JSTOR is dependent upon the cooperation and financial support of many colleges and universities. A subscription-based service emerged, Faculty and students use JSTOR electronic publications unaware of Bowen’s negotiations with journal publishers, Ira Fuchs’ technical choices and their implementation, and the user community’s special-purpose organization. Bowen and Fuchs had demonstrated how, through cooperative effort, JSTOR resources could be made available at costs much less than the then-paper journals.
With this success the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation established the Research In Information Technology, The program would use information technology to improve teaching and learning, reduce costs of administration and increase research productivity within the resources available to colleges and universities. Melon’s “sharing” was the economic key to “more with less.” One of the first projects was uPortal—open source software. Ira Fuchs was clear, this open source effort must be sustaining when the three-year $800,000 grant was over in 2004. Boston College, Cornell, Delaware, Yale, Rutgers, Wisconsin and others supported uPortal and the CAS security software development. More than 2,000 colleges and universities use the software. Mellon’s objectives of a sustainable organization, a community of users, and long-term support have been met. Jasig is a different type of organization and funding model than JSTOR—a model adapted to open source software.
The next step was teaching and learning. The Mellon Foundation initiated the Sakai project. At the same time the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supported formal community development. At the end of the two-year grant period Sakai was sustained by the community generally with dedicated staff of colleges and universities and through a membership fee to support the central coordination and support—the Sakai Foundation. During the Hewlett Foundation grant period Sakai members contributed more than $1.5 million to the development. The Sakai Foundation—another special-purpose organization—has become a success as defined by Fuchs.
Leaders in Sakai recognized a modified funding model could be used for administrative software; they became the nucleus of the Kuali Foundation. Mellon’s objective for the Kuali project was reduced costs of administration by software that was designed for the business processes of colleges and universities as contrasted to commercial software . The software should improve productivity more than software packages that attempt to meet the needs of many diverse industries.
MIT’s DSpace—focused on storing data sets—and the University of Virginia’s Fedora—strong on retrieval—repositories became vital infrastructure for faculty and students.
Mellon funded uPortal and Sakai software was used in the Joint Information Systems Committee Virtual Research Environment projects. This use shows how these projects provide benefits beyond the immediate participants. The VRE projects are improving research productivity in UK.universities, which by some measures, exceed those in the U.S.
Chris Mackie recognized the usefulness of George Mason Universitiy’s Zotero—a “Firefox extension to help [researchers] collect, manage, and cite [their] research source ‘ The Zotero project has a different sustainability model. Dan Cohen writes:
“More important, we have already begun to diversify the sources of support for Zotero, precisely in the way that the Mellon Foundation and others have encouraged us. We will soon write more about one major initiative, the Corporation for Digital Scholarship (CDS), a non-profit organization that sharp-eyed users have noticed provides Zotero’s new cloud storage. CDS will work to sustain Zotero and other open-source projects that serve scholars.
- Dan Cohon “Building a Sustainable Zotero Project,” 6 January 2010
The RIT program provided open source software to improve the information infrastrucure. JSTOR provided needed and economic services. But the most important outcome was a cadre of talented and motivated leaders experienced and skilled in collaborative efforts. Exactly as Bowen and Fuchs envisioned. And they are building the new future.