Trying the Get the History Right – The Sakai Board of Directors and “Sakai 3”

Updated: More dialog has happened and I have added it at the bottom of this post.

Michael Feldstein has written an excellent post titled The Death and Rebirth of Sakai OAE. Michael correctly celebrates the outstanding progress of the Apereo OAE Project. The OAE presentations at the recent Apereo Conference were outstanding and the stakeholders and development team seem very well aligned. These are all developments that make me more optimistic about OAE than I have ever been before.

But since I am an amateur historian and keenly interested in what it takes for Open Source to work, I felt that Michael’s post conveniently missed one very important point in historical account. So I wanted to make sure that the record reflected the significant role of the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors role in the “unfortunate Sakai 3 situation”.

By the way – I am not speaking for anyone except myself in this post.

My Comment to eLiterate

A great post. I too feel that the Apereo OAE project is well positioned for the future with a solid technical underpinning and the right set of stakeholders going forward.

I think that you mistakenly gloss over the culpability of the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors in the “failing” period of the “Sakai 3″/OAE from 2008-2011. The problems of the “Sakai 3” effort in their simplest forms was over confidence and making too many promises and not delivering on those promises. The seeds of this were sown at the 2009 Sakai Foundation Board retreat where it was decided that making a “Sakai 3” was so important that the board authorized spending at levels higher than incoming revenue to hire a product manager, marketing person, and continue to fund a UX person as top priorities. This deficit spending continued with board blessing until late in 2010 at which point the foundation was bordering on bankruptcy. Finally, faced with bankruptcy, the board backed away from the policy that “OAE was too big to fail” and worth putting the foundation itself at risk to save the OAE. The board members and foundation coupled this ill-chosen financial strategy with effuse public “sales pitches” about OAE everywhere they went. It is not surprising that the community believed the foundation board and leadership – so it is really unfair to blame the badly misled and mis-informed community. The “marketing” worked – sadly it was not followed up by a timely product. It was at the Sakai conference in Denver in 2010 when the Sakai board grudgingly accepted that the Sakai CLE product did not need to be shut down and allowed for the formation of the Sakai Technical Communications Committee (TCC) to govern the CLE relatively free of board meddling. Even throughout 2011 and even in 2012, some board members yearned for a time where the board set the community agenda for both CLE and OAE by board fiat – but thankfully those notions are fading into memory as we embrace the new “big tent” and community-centered philosophy that underpins the Apereo Foundation.


The lesson to learn is that the top-down management and marketing-driven approaches that “sort-of” work in the private sector – utterly fail in open-source communities where the participants (people and organizations) are volunteers.

I am really excited about the future potential of Apereo OAE to be a next-generation academic product for all the reasons that you cite in your post. I have great confidence in the team and the remaining stakeholders seem in it for the whole journey wherever it leads. We all need to applaud their efforts so far and look forward to more good things from OAE in the future – without adding too much in the form of expectations from the outside.

Ian Dolphin’s Comments

Ian Dolphin pasted a great comment about the time period from March 2010-December 2010:

The financial situation in 2010 was as dire as Chuck represents. I’m not aware in as much detail as Chuck of the reasons for what amounted to a systemic overspend, or when that originated. I suspect the point of origin for the overpsend to lie before 2009, to be frank. In demonising the Board, however, Chuck introduces a perspective which is misleading. The reduction in Foundation spending was begun by Lois Brooks, as interim Executive Director in February/March 2010. …

I agree with everything Ian said in his comment. Ian also made a blog post in December 2010 that I also agree with.

I made a follow on comment to clarify my statements and agree with Ian.

My Second Comment to Michael’s Blog

Ian – Your narrative of when the board became aware of the dire financial situation accurately places board awareness of the problem in the February / March timeframe and accurately credits Lois Brooks with doing a great job as interim in addressing the financial situation during the March-June timeframe. She did a great job as interim and when you came on in June you continued to do a great job in addressing the financial challenges. We would not be here if it were not for both of your excellent leadership during difficult times.

But the anti-CLE and pro deficit spend policy was strongly held at the board level up to the very last minute. I distinctly recall one board member making an impassioned plea that “deficit spending was essential to the success of OAE” in a late January/Early February meeting as financial concerns were discussed. A few weeks later we saw balance sheets that showed how truly grave the situation was and the talk of “strategic deficit spending” instantly gave way to talk of how to avoid bankruptcy. The CLE-as-deprecated board policy persisted until the June 2010 board meeting in Denver *after* the OAE project suffered major stakeholder pull out (May 2010) and about four months after the board became aware that it was effectively bankrupt. And even at the June 2010 meeting – changing the policy to allow both the OAE and CLE to continue as equals under their own independent leadership was accepted grudgingly by some of the board members at that meeting.

I have the ultimate respect for the OAE team and people involved in the project. The OAE team threw themselves at an impossible task back in 2008 – they raised funds (the board and foundation staff helped fund raise funds in a good way) and tried a bold form of governance for the project – they were forever on the edge of emerging technologies and gave us a beautiful view of what the future would look like. I will defend and support the OAE team past, present, and future. The OAE/CLE schism did not come from either the OAE or CLE – it arose as a result of a board of directors that felt that they had the authority to manage volunteer resources as if those resources belonged to them.

It all worked out (whew!) and I (like everyone else) want to move on. Because I think that the future is very bright for both OAE and CLE.