Ex-Yale President Levin Will Lead Coursera's Expansion

Richard C. (Rick) Levin, who increased Yale’s endowment from $3 billion to $20 billion over the course of two decades as its president and is known for his push for internationalization at the university, yesterday was named president of Coursera, the two-year-old online learning company that “has won powerful allies in higher education by persuading them that it plans to behave more like a university than an investor-backed Silicon Valley company,” as Steve Kolowich writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Noting Levin’s business acumen and enthusiasm for online education, Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng” — both of whom are professors at Stanford University and members of the “2013 Time 100” class — made the announcement on the company’s blog, Yuval Ben-David reports in the Yale Daily News. They said that “Levin would help their company achieve its ultimate goal: ‘to change the world through education.’” 



Re/code’s Liz Gannes points out that Levin is not the guy you’d hire if you were looking to [ursurp] the role of traditional higher education as the book he published upon his retirement as Yale’s president last year, The Worth of the University, “argues for the critical role of the university in society.”

“Coursera hopes Mr. Levin’s connections and business savvy ‘will help us grow in multiple target markets,’” Ng tells Kolowich. And he will need to help the company, which has raised $65 million in capital, “continue to persuade its university partners, and their professors, that a Coursera partnership is worth their time and effort.” 

“The appointment signals a renewed bid for credibility and profitability by a sector of higher education known as massive open online courses, or MOOCs,” Douglas Belkin writes in the Wall Street Journal. “The classes have been both widely heralded as the next great technological disruption in education and condemned for cannibalizing an industry already facing a steep decline in public funding.”

Or, as Betsy Corcoran writes on edSurge, “Coursera is growing up.” Figuratively, that is. Literally, in just two years it already “has become the world’s largest MOOC,” Corcoran reports, with seven million users taking 600 free courses contributed by 108 educational institutions in 19 countries.

The appointment is a study in the ongoing viability of F2F networking. Levin told the Yale Daily News’ Ben-David “the job offer rolled out of a conversation at a party in New York” after he “confessed his admiration of Coursera to one of its investors, who in turn connected him with the Coursera leadership.” He became a part-time adviser during a sabbatical in Palo Alto last semester.   

“I honestly didn’t expect to be doing this,” Levin said in a phone interview with Bloomberg’s Oliver Staley. “This just seemed too compelling an opportunity to resist. It so naturally followed my work as a university president.”

The 66-year-old Levin received his bachelor's degree in history from Stanford in 1968, earned a Bachelor of Letters degree from Oxford and received his Ph.D. in economics from Yale in 1974. He then taught economics at Yale for two decades, chaired the economics department, and served as dean of the Graduate School.

He has served on presidential commissions and numerous boards, committees and panels. He is a director of American Express and Satmetrix (“put customer feedback at the heart of your business”) and a trustee of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

In other announcements, Ng is becoming chairman and will also serve as chief evangelist for the company. Koller will be president, “leading the growth and nurturing of Coursera’s partnerships with universities” and Lila Ibrahim, president since August 2013, will be chief business officer, responsible for business development, growth, marketing and finance.

We’re not talking “Rocks for Jocks” here; featured courses on the homepage this morning include “Bioinformatic Methods II” through the University of Toronto and “Practical Ethics with Peter Singer,” a Princeton professor who has become a brand name of his own in the field of bioethics and will address such questions as “Should we eat animals?” There’s an “Introduction to Marketing” course out of Wharton, too.

Most MOOC students are college graduates looking to enhance their careers,” Coursera’s Ng indicates to the WSJ’s Belkin. “The company recently sent an email to 200,000 students who had earned a certificate, offering them a simple path to posting it on their LinkedIn account,” Belkin writes. “Mr. Ng said 21% of them posted the certificate.”

“In terms of a marketing campaign, that is out of the park,” Ng asserted. 

Well, it’s definitely better than a gentlemarketer’s B.

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