Tuesday, January 07, 2014


An Open Letter to the Gates Foundation

Dear Gates Foundation,

On behalf of community college folks everywhere, thanks for noticing the importance of community colleges.  Your strong public focus on us has made waves that we weren’t always able to make on our own.  On my own campus, the Gateway program -- one of yours -- has done some wonderful work with at-risk high school students, bringing people whose paths weren’t leading anywhere good to new possibilities.  The presence of the program triggered some difficult, but eventually healthy, campus discussions; a relatively small cohort of students had a much larger impact than they probably even suspected.

On the policy front, you’ve catalyzed some discussions that were long overdue.  It’s easy to take exception to this idea or that one -- if you would like input from an experienced community college administrator who obsesses about these things, my phone works --  but at least the debates are happening.  

But I think you’ve overlooked an area you’re uniquely qualified to address.  This is where you could make the kind of positive difference -- I’m entirely serious about this -- that nobody else could.

Software.  (I’ll admit I was tempted to say “Plastics.”  Old joke.)

Community colleges, for the most part, were established before the internet became a fact of daily life.  We’ve had to play catchup.  But unlike research universities or for-profits, for the most part, weve had to do it on a shoestring.  Our IT departments are chronically short-staffed, in large part because we can’t pay salaries anywhere close to competitive with what techies can earn in other places.  Vendors of ERP systems, “portals,” and the like charge remarkable amounts of money for their wares, knowing that we know that we have to at least try to keep up with the world.  The money that goes into that increasingly desperate chase gets diverted from other places.

And as anyone who has been through product cycles a few times knows, every new product brings with it fresh bugs, weird compatibility issues, and unintended consequences.  Those require manual work-arounds devised by the staff we can’t afford.

So here’s what I’m thinking.

You understand the importance of community colleges, and want to help.  You also have connections in the software industry at a pretty elite level.  You know software, and you want to help community colleges.  Why not help community colleges with software?

I’m not just talking about Microsoft, though that’s obviously bound to be part of the picture.  As a separate foundation, you can attract talented programmers from just about anywhere.

Imagine this.  

You declare that you will assemble the greatest pro bono team of programmers the education world has ever seen, and that they will work on durable, low-maintenance back office programs that will be free to nonprofit colleges and universities.  You could bring in teams of registrars, financial aid directors, bursars, admissions counselors, and campus IT people to consult on the design.  You could build systems to support things that colleges actually do, rather than taking wild guesses and then forcing colleges to build expensive workarounds, as happens now.  

In so doing, you could free up hundreds of millions of dollars at thousands of colleges across the country.  That’s money that could be used to hire faculty, provide academic advising and student counseling, and hold down the tuition spiral.  You could make colleges more effective, cheaper, and more sustainable, doing the thing that made you famous in the first place.

You could use your powers for good.

In the process, you could introduce the concept of “pro bono” to Silicon Valley, where, um -- how to put this delicately -- it has not been widely adopted.  

If it catches on, you could do similar projects for other worthwhile public nonprofits, be they K-12 districts, municipalities, social service agencies, or law enforcement.  You could attack a real, and growing, pain point, and help the various agencies do what they do better -- simply by doing the thing that made you famous in the first place.

Please give it some thought.  I honestly don’t think anyone else is in a position to do this even halfway as well as you could.  

If you have any questions, my phone works.  


Matt Reed

Interesting suggestion, but it isn't entirely about software. You also have to have the hardware platform and staff that can manage all of the above. A lot of open source code is designed for Unix platforms (since what good is free code on a proprietary foundation that will change at random every few years), but most colleges are M$ operations with no or limited Unix skills.

If you are talking about the HR parts of the operation, this might be a big win. There are not that many fundamental differences in that part of the operation. The same also applies to financial aid, because so many of the policies are national.

But can a non-profit like them go into direct competition for business with for-profit vendors?

Student records might be a bigger problem, because each state has its own back end that takes data from the state's colleges and universities. I've even seen a wide variation between transcripts from schools in the same state! That might change if there is a national clearing house for ed data.

Perhaps designing a comprehensive data base for educational records, one that could accommodate everything anyone might throw at it, would be a good job for them.
Pro bono software is a terrible idea. That's why it has never and will never be embraced. You are not indigent, you are a commercial enterprise, even if you are not for profit. As such, you need to pay a fair price for the services you consume.

I notice you don't advocate for pro bono professorships.

When an industry that is already committing deeply unfair labor practices against adjuncts starts asking for free handouts of sophisticated professional services, something has gone terribly wrong.
Edmund -

1. Taking community colleges to task is (in this case) barking up the wrong tree. Their government funding has been slashed, and slashed, and slashed again. They don't have the money for expensive software, and it's not their fault. I say this as an underpaid adjunct, too, even I get the financial constraints they are under.

2. There are several types of pro bono software that are wildly popular. UNIX and LINUX are two that have been embraced by millions who not only use it but tinker with it.
As a software person: software is simply incomparable to professional services, so Edmund Dantes's comparison is inaccurate. Software can be reproduced at zero cost. What you need to pay for is customizations to the software to meet specific needs. I am currently only using free software on my computer.

I believe that Unix platforms are usually easier to maintain than MS platforms, but that's another story. Certainly there needs to be some local expertise to install systems and keep them running. That's not free. But there shouldn't be a need to pay license fees to continue running the software.

I do think that Dean Dad has a good point here and that this is something that ought to happen. It just takes significant effort (funding) to actually get it to happen.
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