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June 14, 2013
On April 26 at the Honors Convocation at San Jose State University, President Mohammad Qayoumi hooded Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, making him an honorary doctor of humane letters.
The head of the San Jose–based tech giant then spoke to the assembled students about how the fast pace of technological development and globalization has transformed the job market. Quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—a vocal proponent of online education—Chambers said that new graduates had to be “innovation-ready” and not just able to find a job but to “invent” one.
The graduating Spartans, however, were fortunate: they had attended a university that understood this new world they were about to enter. Chambers applauded SJSU for leading the way in bringing online courses to the California State University system, by expanding its offerings from edX, a nonprofit online course provider founded by Harvard and MIT:
Everyday across the world we are seeing this type of innovative teaching and learning, setting the stage for a different kind of lifelong training. That's what it takes in today's fast moving, data driven Internet of Everything world. All of us must be innovation-ready, and realize that career growth will go to those who continue to leverage the 21st Century Mind by adapting, discovering, and learning new skills.
His comments no doubt found approval with President Qayoumi, who has led the fight in bringing massive open online courses (MOOCs) to SJSU and, through example, to public universities across the country. However, those comments also likely perturbed many of the assembled professors. SJSU has become a flash point in the ongoing debate over MOOCs, thanks to the open letter that its philosophy department wrote to Harvard’s Michael Sandel explaining why they refused to use JusticeX—edX’s online version of his celebrated course—in their curriculum. Their critical letter also took aim at CSU administrators for pushing MOOCs as a cost-cutting measure without first evaluating their quality.
The merits and shortcomings of MOOCs deserve to be debated, as we have been doing with our series on the topic. And President Qayoumi has played an important role in that public discussion. However, his authority in this debate might be challenged because of the close ties he has forged between SJSU and tech companies such as Cisco that aim to profit from the growth of online learning.
• • •
Mohammad “Mo” Qayoumi was appointed SJSU’s president in March 2011, departing the same position at CSU East Bay for its larger and more prestigious sister institution. His move took place amid $100 million in state budget cuts to the CSU system, of which SJSU would absorb $6.5 million. (Last fall's passage of California's Proposition 30, which raised taxes to fund education, has provided some relief.) Previous cuts had forced the university to turn away thousands of qualified freshmen for the first time in its history.
Under strain, Qayoumi has reasonably sought ways to cut costs, including the use of MOOCs. And like all university presidents, he has also courted new streams of funding.
He can count on the generosity of Silicon Valley’s tech companies, which donate lavishly (directly and through matching grants) to SJSU, a major hiring source for them. Cisco, IBM, HP, Microsoft, and Xilinx, a giant in integrated circuits, are members of the President’s Society thanks to cumulative corporate and foundation donations of at least $1 million each. The society was established “to honor the highest level corporate and foundation university partnerships, which offer unique opportunities for both entities to build on each other’s strengths.” Cisco, Xilinx, and fellow local tech company Nexus IS also generously sponsored Qayoumi's April 2012 investiture ceremony and related festivities.
Shortly after Qayoumi’s appointment, the university announced that a group of Silicon Valley tech companies—KLA-Tenor, Xilinx, Cisco, Intel, and Aruba Networks—had collectively pledged $1 million toward “Engineering Pathways to Success,” a program through SJSU’s College of Engineering that prepares middle- and high-school students for college-level engineering through Project Lead The Way, a virtual curriculum. Participating middle and high schools get the curriculum for free but must purchase computer software, student equipment, and teacher training.
The partnership between SJSU and Cisco has been particularly valuable for both. In the fall of 2012, SJSU announced a five-year $28 million project to upgrade the campus’s technology infrastructure to enable greater use of online learning and MOOCs. The contract was awarded to Cisco, which would team up with Nexus IS to create 51 “next generation learning spaces” and would make Cisco’s Show and Share®, Telepresence®, WebEx®, Unified IP phone system, and wireless technology available across campus. SJSU chose Cisco without accepting competitive bids and reportedly did not file the appropriate documentation for such a no-bid contract with CSU’s chancellor’s office. SJSU claimed that filing the documentation was unnecessary.
Shortly after this, CSU decided to make a similar tech upgrade to the 22 other campuses in its system. This time there was competitive bidding, and Cisco lost out when its bid came in $100 million higher than its competitor Alcatel-Lucent, which won the contract at $22 million. HP was the second-lowest bidder at $41 million. All the competing companies were bidding on roughly the same work.
Qayoumi came to SJSU as a Cisco-approved online learning expert. Since his days at CSU East Bay, he has been a speaker in Cisco’s regular Virtual Forums for Education. His most recent appearance was on March 19 of this year.
Currently, Qayoumi is busy launching his latest MOOC project, the SJSU Plus Program. The Plus Program will be delivered through Udacity, a for-profit online education company started by two Stanford professors. The program will offer five different courses for college credit at $150 per class. Udacity is a Cisco client.
• • •
“Are We Innovation-Ready?” asks President Qayoumi’s latest white paper on improving higher education. The Friedmanesque question echoes, as the paper acknowledges, Cisco CEO John Chambers at his SJSU address. Both men regularly make bold claims about the future and value of MOOCs, but only Qayoumi can be a true leader of the MOOC movement. He is an academic authority rather than a mere spokesman for a company set to profit from the trend.
But he is also compromised. The strategic alliances Qayoumi has forged between SJSU and Cisco, as well as other tech firms, bring clear benefits to him, to SJSU, and to those firms. It may even be in the best interests of SJSU students who seek a high-quality, affordable education followed by a job, perhaps at Cisco. But the alliance comes at the cost of undercutting his independent authority on this issue.
For more on technology and the future of learning, read our four-part series on MOOCs.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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