What's a Kuali? A Cute Name Belies the Mission of This Open Source Financial Management Software for Higher Education, Which Soon Enters Its Next Incarnation

Article excerpt

"JUST THREE YEARS AGO A group of higher education's IT people and financial managers teamed up to take on a new project. Their mission: To develop open source financial management software that could keep a general ledger, run payroll, or perform any other basic financial function.

The hard work is paying off. Next month, October 2007, The Kuali Project officially enters Phase II. A new version of the Kuali software will include different bells and whistles for the financial team. Among the highlights: more functions for the general ledger, new modules for tracking contracts and grants, and help with monitoring procurement, according to Kathleen McNeely, assistant vice president of finance at Indiana University, who gave a rundown at the "Kuali Update" session in July at the annual conference of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), which took place in New Orleans, La.

The Kuali project aims to deliver the best of breed from nonproprietary software packages, explained McNeely. The project began when a key group of colleges and universities that had already developed technology to manage their own financial matters agreed to work together and share software code. McNeely's employer, IU, has been a large contributor to Kuali. IU's financial management system is the baseline for the Kuali software, although others certainly have added to the project.

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Next month's additions follow last October's release of Phase I, or Kuali 1.0, if you will. Spearheaded by The Kuali Foundation, the first iteration of the software was designed to handle such key tasks as general accounting, budget creation, capital asset management, requisitions, and disbursements.

"Kuali" is loosely translated from Japanese into English to mean "humble utensil that plays an important role in the kitchen." The whimsical name is a nod to the Sakai Project, another open source initiative that pre-dates Kuali and was named for Hiroyuki Sakai of the popular Iron Chef TV show. While Sakai is developed to be an alternative, or complement, to commercial learning management systems like Blackboard and WebCT, Kuali is all for business.

THE COST OF FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT

Commercial technology systems for higher education do not come cheap. Depending on the size of the college or university, and the amount of data being managed, the cost to license a commercial financial system can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even be as much as $1 million.

"But that's not where the real costs are," observes Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology, CIO, and a dean at Indiana University. The real nut to crack is the implementation cost, which can run as much as $20 million, says Wheeler. "There is a tremendous amount of work involved in moving data and maintaining a system," he says.

The Kuali Foundation wants to ease this financial burden. That's why Kuali software is distributed for free. Free is the whole idea behind open source, which gives users access to software code and permission to change it at will. Open source software is, by definition, an open book. The code is not only available for download, but fits with the higher ed model of open discourse and shared information. The "free" concept also appeals to those watching the bottom line.

Kuali took shape in 2004 with $2.5 million in seed money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and four founding partners: Indiana University, the University of Hawaii, NACUBO, and the rSmart Group, an open source software services provider. For the uninitiated, rSmart is to open source software in higher education what Red Hat is to Linux, an open source application that runs on UNIX.

rSmart is an important partner, guiding users through the process of converting to the Kuali software and learning how to use it at optimum levels.

But while the software is free, this help is not free. …

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