Higher Ed OSPOs Garnering Millions in Funding. Why?

Higher Ed OSPOs Garnering Millions in Funding. Why?

By Patrick Masson, GM of Apereo Foundation
May 31, 2022


An apparent emerging trend in higher ed is the creation of the "Open Source Program Office" (OSPO). Recent examples include:

Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)

The University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)

The University of Vermont (UVM) 

University of Saint Louis

Most would probably agree; open source software has long played an integral role on campuses supporting institutional infrastructure, research, teaching and learning, and even student projects. And of course, there are even multiple examples of universities starting and successfully delivering open source tools. However, the above campuses/programs are all recent initiatives, and they all received significant funding to manage systems and services previously, if not precisely overlooked, perhaps under-appreciated and under-resourced; certainly not deemed "mission-critical." What has changed? Why are campuses creating OSPOs, and why is Sloan funding them?

What appears to be different now is how open source projects--both developed internally by local faculty, researchers, IT departments, or externally-developed projects implemented on campus--span campus departments and initiatives. Perhaps due to its organic nature, open source software emerged from “under the desk” as faculty or departments discovered solutions to address their unique academic programs, research initiatives, or administrative needs. Want to offer virtual office hours to students? Ask the department’s administrative assistant to send out Jit.si links. Need a database for the lab? Have a grad-student set up PostgreSQL. Looking to track the dental school alumni? Rent a little space with a CiviCRM hosting provider. But what happens when those Jit.si rooms require more seats? Where do researchers go when they require more computing power? Who is going to help integrate the dental school alumni with the main university alumni association? Previously, IT departments could push support and maintenance responsibilities for those few open source applications deployed for one "novel" program or by one "innovative" faculty member to that same department or faculty.

But open source is now everywhere, including on campuses. With 82% of IT leaders choosing to work with enterprise open source vendors, how campuses manage their IT portfolios will need to change; vendors vs. projects, contractors vs. collaborators, top-down vs. bottom-up decision making, centralized vs. distributed services.

Is open source now actually part of an enterprise IT strategy? Yes, fundamental to technology infrastructure but now also an enterprise platform for enabling teaching and learning in and across academic disciplines; an instrument in the laboratory supporting cross-institutional research; a forum for community engagement driving alumni involvement and fund-raising. The value of open source (TCO, the pace of development, security, higher quality, cloud-native, standards-based/setting) provides technical and financial benefits, while open source values (community, collaboration, co-creation, etc.) serve as operational, cultural, and even educational models.

Participating in open source software development and their communities of practice introduces new principles and practices to the institution. Think "openness," where transparency, collaboration, self-direction, self-organization, bottom-up, and other modes for co-creation challenge traditional management, administrative and operational models.

Successfully implementing open source systems and the resulting cultural shift requires institutions to (re)assess their organizational principles and operational practices. The (re)assessment cannot only take place in the IT department but would include the entire campus. IT departments will need new processes for identifying and evaluating open source options and their support providers. Procurement departments will need new tools beyond traditional RFPs for software and technology acquisition. IP transfer and legal departments should be knowledgeable on matters that affect license compatibility and compliance. Campus leadership must adapt to decentralized and distributed decision-making. Faculty, researchers, and even students will need to learn how to authentically engage with open source communities of practice... to name a few.

Based on the above, have (some) campuses concluded that leveraging open source software (as end-users, contributors, etc.) requires broader management (and management skills) than previously employed? If so, looking to models already adopted in industry--and in many cases, the technology companies higher education relies on--seems prudent. Thus enters the OSPO.

Does this sound right? Why are campuses creating OSPOs, and why are granting institutions supporting their creation to the tune of millions of dollars? Do others see this as a growing trend or simply the latest fad?

The Apereo Foundation invited Sayeed Choudhury, Associate Dean for Research Data Management and Head of the Open Source Programs Office at Johns Hopkins University, to introduce the higher ed OSPO at last year's Open Apereo Conference. This year we're following up with two featured speakers, Stephen Jacobs, Director of Open@RIT, who will speak on the values "in" open source that extend and enhance academia, and Danese Cooper, former head of open source at Sun, Intel, and PayPal on the value of Open Source Program Offices in higher education.

I suspect they will offer deeper and broader opinions on why campuses are now exploring and launching OSPOs and why too granting agencies are funding them. I invite you to join us for Open Apereo 2022, June 14 & 15, Online.


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