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Business Officer Magazine

INSIGHTS: Jennifer Foutty Takes Stock of Kuali

On her one-year anniversary as the first executive director of the Kuali Foundation, Bloomington, Indiana, Jennifer Foutty reflects on where the Kuali community is headed.

By Joanne DeStephano

It’s been a busy year for Jennifer Foutty. March marked her one-year anniversary as the first executive director of the Kuali Foundation, Bloomington, Indiana. Kuali is a collaboration of institutions involved in developing open source administrative systems for higher education, including the Kuali Financial System (see “It Takes a Community” in the January 2009 Business Officer).

Joanne DeStefano, vice president for financial affairs and chief financial officer at Cornell University—a founding Kuali member—served on the committee that hired Foutty. In this Business Officer interview, both reflect on key accomplishments for the foundation and where the Kuali community is headed next.

What do chief business officers need to know about the Kuali Foundation, and what don’t they know that they should know? What I think CBOs need to know, especially about the Kuali Financial System, is that the project is based upon the design of an existing system used for many years by Indiana University. It is less risky, because it brings a base model that is proven in higher education and has been tested through collaboration with many other institutions, including community colleges, medical schools, and research institutions.

Something else they should know is that every Kuali project is functionally driven. We keep up-to-date on technology, because that’s important; but resources are prioritized from a functional, not a technical, perspective. I think that aspect sometimes gets lost when people talk about administrative systems.

One thing CBOs might not know is how focused we are on ensuring the quality of our source code. Some skeptics of community source may think that we do codevelopment and support in a slapdash manner, but nothing could be further from the truth. An example that comes to mind is performance testing recently done on the Kuali Financial System for load balancing, since the general ledger is so significant in many of these large institutions. This testing was done within a very structured environment.

Can you briefly explain the community membership structure and benefits? This has evolved over the past 12 months to make sure that we are structured in a way that supports the foundation, yet primarily benefits institutions. Becoming a member of the Kuali Foundation provides access to the events, collaboration tools, and information across the entire community. Probably more important is to become a partner in one of the projects—for instance, with the Kuali Financial System or Kuali Student. Most of the foundation’s actual resources and governance lie with individual projects, which have their own governance structures.

What were your main organizational objectives for the first year of the foundation?Our first goal was to ensure that we had the right roles and responsibility structures to support the projects we have in place. That included working with the foundation board to better understand its relationship to the individual projects. Part of building this underlying organizational structure involved developing a model for sustainability—that is, for the maintenance and management of source code. This was especially important for a system as mission-critical as the Kuali Financial System, which is nearing its final release under Mellon Foundation grant funding. Additional enhancements will be funded by participating colleges and universities.

The second goal was to make sure that all our financial, legal, and licensing issues were being managed appropriately.

A third goal was to ensure that we have an ongoing funding mechanism to support the development of Kuali Rice—the technical infrastructure that allows all systems and projects to be developed and managed effectively and to work together seamlessly. Without the technical infrastructure, our applications could not be successful.

Finally, I thought we needed to work on our communication, both internally among projects across all of Kuali and externally to promote ongoing outreach to those outside the community. I think we still have some work to do on the latter.

What surprises have you encountered during this past year?

My biggest surprise has been how fast membership has grown since the start of the overall project in 2005. Since I became executive director in 2008, we’ve had 9 institutions join for a total of 39 members. We currently have three institutions that plan to implement the Kuali Financial System this year: San Joaquin Delta College [California], Colorado State University, and the University of Arizona.

Usually when institution leaders start looking at Kuali, they do a bit of “kicking the tires” to see what we’re about. As more institutions come to understand what we do, and as we successfully complete implementations by partner institutions, I think we’ll experience even greater interest and see membership continue to grow.

How can institutions learn and be involved if they aren’t ready to commit to membership? This is a critical issue, because without members Kuali can’t survive. While any institution can download and use the software, since there is no license fee, we encourage institutions to join so that we can continue to support the software and keep it viable. We have implemented tiered membership costs, so smaller institutions with less overall revenue pay much less than larger institutions.

What specific objectives have been most important for you to accomplish on behalf of the Kuali community? As mentioned, I feel good about new member recruitment. From a governance perspective, each project board is doing an excellent job of coordinating activities at the project level. What I have done as executive director is to think about new projects. We have several projects that have either come before the Kuali community or that Kuali has tried to initiate under the umbrella of the foundation. Each of these raises questions about how to onboard the project and how to get its resources and governance structure established. The foundation board has done a lot of work putting those activities in motion.

Since I am not a technical guru, technology development is not something in which I get directly involved, but the whole point of Kuali is to find the right people for the right roles. We’ve created structures with Kuali Rice to ensure that our technology development is up-to-date but is also focused on the applications; because, in the end, the applications are what need to work correctly.

Finally, establishing best practices and fostering collaboration are values that are embedded within the Kuali community environment. What we want to do as a foundation board is to make sure all projects and their governance structures have the tools and resources needed to be effective.

Many trustees are not technologists, so they may view community source as an incredible risk. What do you suggest chief business officers say when presenting Kuali Financial System implementation to their boards? One point that a CBO must make is that the institution will have control over the direction of the project. A second point is that using open source code can significantly reduce costs in some key areas. For instance, there aren’t any licensing fees or contractual annual maintenance fees like you might have with a vendor. More importantly, because the software is open and is not proprietary, it can be understood fully by functional and technical staff and customized in ways that you cannot do with many vendor systems. Working in this collaborative way means that the teams in the partner institutions already know the software when they are ready to implement it.

A third advantage is a bit intangible, and that is that you have a ready-made community for support. Collaboration within Kuali not only allows you to develop and implement software, but also helps you meet people across the country whom you can call when you have a problem. That may not mean much to your trustees when making a software decision; but, if they’re looking at it from a broader strategic perspective, that can mean a lot.

Lastly, because the software is developed by and for the higher education community, it is a fit for our particular business needs.

At this one-year marker, what critical juncture does the foundation face and what priorities lie ahead? Foremost, having the system implementations I mentioned be successful is priority one, because successful implementation at the institution level is the most important goal of any Kuali project. The major juncture we face is how and when to bring on new projects. We must introduce any new project carefully and with good planning so that we don’t compromise its effectiveness for users.

What drew you personally to this position as the Kuali Foundation’s first executive director? I have a background in developing and implementing information systems in higher education and working in functional areas, including research administration and the financial arena—so I was struck by what I thought was an incredibly good fit. I also have a real passion for the Kuali project and truly believe in what it can bring to higher education.

What is your long-term vision for the foundation? My vision is for the Kuali Foundation to become a household name in higher education and to be viewed as a welcome option for institutions seeking to deliver and sustain their administrative applications in a way that’s truly cost effective and that meets the specific needs of higher education.

JOANNE DESTEFANO is vice president for financial affairs and chief financial officer at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.