After the resignation of Unizin’s CEO (Amin Qazi) and COO (Robin Littleworth) that we reported last week, we can confirm that the key issue was a change in direction for the consortium driven by the board of directors. Our information is based on on-the-record interviews with Qazi and Littleworth and additional interviews with Unizin staff, member institution staff, and outside sources. We believe this change in direction led to the resignations and will likely also lead to a change in emphasis on various Unizin initiatives.
To recap what happened last week and add some details, there were two back-to-back board meetings for Unizin and Kuali held in Austin, TX. These meetings were not emergency meetings and were scheduled a long time ago, based on Unizin’s headquarters and Kuali’s users conference being held in that city. In an interview and follow-up discussion over the past few days, Amin Qazi described how he had not expected to resign going into the week. But in a meeting last Monday with the executive committee of Unizin, the board described a change in direction that they wanted to make, focusing on investments in initiatives with shorter-term visibility instead of those with a longer-term payoff such as the Open edX and Google partnerships. Qazi said that he was not the right person to lead the company in that direction, and after this meeting he resigned.
I was told that Monday night Rob Lowden, Associate Vice President of Enterprise Systems at Indiana University, was asked to fly down to Austin based on this resignation. At the Tuesday Unizin board meeting, they approved his selection as interim executive director while the board searches for a new CEO. Robin Littleworth described that he was told somewhat conflicting information in his meeting with the board in that there was no change in direction.
Coming out of the the board meeting, there was an all-hands meeting with Unizin staff, and board members told them of the changes. There was a question about rumors that Kuali.co might be acquiring Unizin, and the board members stated that this rumor was not true. Later in the meeting Littleworth gave an impassioned speech that the staff was the company, and that due to the changes and how they were handled the board had seriously harmed the company culture. He then announced his resignation. According to Littleworth, he hopes that his resignation and speech might alert the board that they didn’t think the situation all the way through and that they should reconsider how to support the company moving forward. Rob Lowden, for his part, still has his full-time job at Indiana University, but he told staff during this meeting that he would be commuting weekly to Austin for the next several months during the transition.
I suspect that we’ll need to analyze the change in direction in more depth as details come out, but I believe that this situation is not based on finances or problems getting member institutions to recommit; rather it is a matter of emphasis on shorter-term versus longer-term initiatives.
All Unizin member institutions that signed on in 2014 have re-signed to new three-year agreements, and according to Unizin Form 990 submissions, the consortium had $2 million in assets as of summer 2016 while running a surplus – meaning that this balance is should be even higher today. Furthermore, Littleworth stated that the Unizin management team was “not given any indication from our Board, let alone anything in writing, that we were at all underperforming or not meeting expectations”.
What Qazi and Littleworth were pushing for were initiatives that directly addressed member institution needs even though they may take time to develop. One example is the recently-announced Open edX partnership. In an interview with Thomas Evans at The Ohio State University, he described that school’s desire to explore micro-credentials and to figure out how that would fit into an overall OSU strategy. Despite OSU’s partnership with Coursera, or actually because of it, the school did not want to figure this out with a platform company that would take a percentage of revenue. The Unizin / Open edX agreement is allowing OSU to pilot programs and figure out a strategy over the next few years.
What we are likely to see with the Unizin change in direction is a stronger emphasis on partnerships and developments focused on near-term positioning of the consortium, include the BNED LoudCloud analytics partnership.
The key intellectual property that Unizin has developed over the past few years is the Unizin Data Platform with its associated Unizin Common Data Model (UCDM). From a post on the UCDM:
The UCDM rules map student, course, instruction, and learning activity information together. They solve the problem of “connecting the dots” between all of the data sources to create a single view of the student in the context of learning. As the data flows in from the SIS, LMS, and learning tools, the rules are applied to each data element, like a puzzle piece, to make sure that it is oriented to contribute to the whole picture.
We at e-Literate have been critical of Unizin over the years for not having a clear value proposition. But from my conversations over the past two years with Unizin member institutions, the biggest value thus far from the consortium was this data platform and the hard work done to turn messy LMS and SIS data into usable formats. We have also heard from two outside sources recently that Unizin has had some real success using Engage to provide Inclusive Access digital content (course content available day one of term through institutional agreements) to several schools. And the OSU description of why they are using Open edX is compelling with its alignment with the stated Unizin mission.
We don’t know all the details of the change in direction, but we believe this change is what triggered the management resignations last week. I will be quite interested to see if the changes affect the three initiatives mentioned above and pull the organization backwards in terms of creating value for its member institutions.
Given the change, however, I believe there will also be a corresponding change in company culture that is inevitable at Unizin. Qazi and Littleworth (I have had many more interactions with the former but believe both to have been aligned) had an open, transparent, collegial style. Rather than ever getting defensive from questions we have asked or posts we have written at e-Literate, the two departing Unizin executives went out of their way to listen to criticism, engage us in conversations, and not try and control messaging but favor transparency instead.
Qazi described how he was honored to have had the responsibility to guide Unizin through hard three years of launching the company, and he is proud of the team that Unizin has – they have a great deal of passion and dedication, and they have been asked to solve some very different problems from universities. Littleworth also expressed his primary pride in the Unizin staff and what they are accomplishing.
By way of contrast, we have found the Unizin board to be quite focused on controlling the message. The board specifically asked both Qazi and Littleworth to not talk to me, but given their lack of employment agreements controlling who they talked to, both declined. I have asked to speak to board members for this story over the past few days with no response until they put out a press release today. The press release thanked Qazi for his service in a classy way and briefly noted Lowden’s new role while not mentioning Littleworth. But there is no information that I did not already have. After the press release came out I was invited, not by a board member but by a communications specialist, to submit questions for the board to address. I will do so for follow-up analysis.
There is little doubt in my mind that the new Unizin leadership will be much more tightly controlled by the Unizin board, and they will take on much more of the board’s characteristics. This will likely lead to a change in company culture.
Where does this leave Unizin? The consortium has money and three-year agreements in place. But there is a lot of work to be done before the consortium can deliver the value justifying $250k – $427k per year membership fees. As Littleworth described, the company is still in its infancy but now is changing direction while missing its critical leadership.
While the following is not based on my interviews, I find the choice of Lowden as interim executive director to be quite interesting and a big part of the reason that I believe the ‘change in direction’ argument. If the board truly wanted to continue same direction despite Amin’s resignation, why not promote Steve Scott (CTO) or Robin Littleworth (COO), at least during transition? Remember that Littleworth did not resign until after Lowden was selected, and there was no discussion with the former COO about what to do next. Bringing in someone from outside so quickly seems to be significant. Furthermore, Lowden has a long history at Indiana University working for Unizin co-founder Brad Wheeler, and he was also involved early on at Sakai and then with the Kuali board – initiatives heavily influenced by Wheeler. Given his full-time job, the choice to use Lowden to replace full-time executive team for the next several months will lead to a challenging situation at a crucial time, to say the least, even though Qazi is staying on board through December to help with the transition. Was this choice partially worked out in advance, or did the board really react to Qazi’s resignation and find an interim replacement within 24 hours? What will Lowden be able to accomplish given his logistical challenges (Indianapolis vs. Austin and having multiple jobs). I will attempt to get answers from board on these questions.
What I would watch over the next few months is whether Unizin loses additional staff due to the changes. And I would also watch the direction of the Unizin Data Platform in particular to understand the extent of changes to strategy.