From the Ivy League to the Tech League
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this company has millions on hand to change education.
By Sanjena Sathian
In another life, Richard (for the familiar, Rick) Levin could be found in the wooden-paneled, hallowed offices of Yale University, where intellectual gothic spires and shadowy libraries reign. Today, it’s a little different. A drab office park. Open workspaces. Standing desk. This isn’t the gritty, cultural confines of New Haven, but suburban Mountain View, California — the last place you’d expect a former Ivy League president to end up at the twilight of his career.
And yet Levin, wearing Nike kicks, khakis and a friendly pink button-down, is propped up behind his own standing desk and seems just fine here at Coursera, one of the world’s largest online education companies. Actually, more than just fine, as he’s busy moving it up yet one more notch in a crowded field while maintaining the original, wildly popular mission that put the company on the map: Make education scalable, make it available and make it digital.
It is a mission that represents so much of Silicon Valley’s take on teaching, one that emphasizes just how unlikely a choice 68-year-old Levin — an economist by training and once the longest-running president at Yale — was for the role of CEO. But in the year since he’s arrived, Coursera grabbed a nearly $62 million round of Series C funding and is now aggressively chasing international markets. They’re at 16 million learners and counting. The innovations keep rolling in too: Instead of degrees, students can pick from career “specializations” — 32 new ones were introduced in September — for bragging rights and trading chips in the working world someday.
In person, Levin seems less adventitious. For one thing, he’s about as charismatic as the techie stereotypes dictate, rarely cracking a smile or changing pitch. He is all business, trading just a couple of words with me to acknowledge that I was under his leadership as a student during his last four years in New Haven. Watch the clock: Small talk ends in under 60 seconds. And, of course, Levin’s native in the skin of a CEO, having run a massive institution. Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller — a formidable expert in artificial intelligence — tells me his Yale chops stood out when she and partner Andrew Ng decided to hand over their baby. They weren’t actively looking for a CEO, but when Coursera’s investors brought Levin their way, they were impressed.
Those chops: Levin saw Yale through turbulent times — the financial crash (which Yale famously survived, with flourish), an initially nasty town-gown relationship with the troubled city of New Haven. And his record includes some international accomplishments that must have looked mouthwatering to a company hoping to make it outside the US — working his way into China and launching an education collaboration with the National University of Singapore. That move did draw some controversy, but Levin tells me the roughest parts of running Yale were the student tragedies; indeed, there were sexual-assault cases, suicides and two murders, one still unsolved. He recalls one of the scariest days: 9/11, when President Bush’s daughter was on campus, and when, for a brief hour, one plane had yet to be located. Levin recalls the administration feared New Haven might be the next target.
Ahead for Levin remain plenty of challenges: He’s got competitors, like edX and Udacity. The former has a number of Ivy League partners on board, and the latter’s moved into professional education. And Coursera still earns frowns among some educators. On the plus side, it’s provided plenty of research on new teaching tactics, says Karin Forssell, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, but she worries its student-body makeup is limited to people who want only to advance careers, not to learn. (Levin says he’s proud of Coursera’s reach, pointing to its some 7 million students in the developing world.)
San Francisco–raised, Levin spent most of his adult life far away from the tech booms of his hometown. As an undergrad at Stanford during the late ’60s (where he says he shared in a few antiwar protests, though it was no hippie Berkeley), he saw little of the first computing revolution that was ramping up in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Instead, he preferred the dead-white-guy roster of Adam Smith and De Tocqueville, and he went on to Oxford for a Master’s, writing about Max Weber.
As an academic, Levin veered slightly closer to technology, studying patents and intellectual property, particularly in the pharma industry and “what we called high-tech” and “electronics.” But 19 years into his professorial days, he appeared on the radar to be the next Yale prez. And that job sure stuck, for two decades. Levin, his four kids and his wife, Jane, a popular English professor who’s still teaching on campus one semester a year, were fixtures on campus.
Though he says he doesn’t miss the liberal-arts world, I yearn for it on his behalf at one moment: I ask how he met Jane. It was freshman English at Stanford, and the professor handed back the first writing assignment, holding on to just one paper to read aloud. “It was the first time that wasn’t mine,” he says. It was, of course, the future other Professor Levin. I forgot to ask if Coursera would consider spinning off a dating app.