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Yale's Former President -- Now Coursera's CEO -- Settles Into Silicon Valley

No one would wear that paisley shirt in New Haven.


Richard C. Levin, who spent 43 years under the arcades and porticos of Yale University, eventually serving as its president, arrived in Silicon Valley six months ago to take over a startup which will, eventually, tear universities like it down.

“When Google came out, it had a profound impact on access to information,” said Levin, who is now the CEO of Mountain View-based Coursera. “The first order wasn’t to drive Encyclopedia Britannica out of business. Though they eventually did.”

I ran into Levin yesterday at the Techonomy conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and we sat down outside to chat. Coursera is an enormous online platform where students can sign up to take traditional university courses, which they then stream for free. The site — with massive open online courses, or MOOCs — has more than one million monthly active users and $1 million a month in revenue from students who opt to pay for specialization certificates, which are sort of like diplomas.

Rick Levin
Rick Levin

Levin joined to grow the startup into a legitimate institution whose courses carry weight, and to help get universities on board. Had he experienced any major culture shock moving out here from the East Coast?

“Well,” he said, pointing to a nearby screen which showed the conference founder, David Kirkpatrick, wearing a pink-and-green paisley button-down, conducting an interview. “Something like that shirt wouldn’t happen at Yale.”

Levin himself was wearing a suit. He looked like the only adult on the patio, which is exactly what Coursera investors probably hoped for when they hired him.

Why did he take the job? “John Doerr is a very good salesman,” he said, referencing the venture capitalist, a Coursera investor from Kleiner Perkins.

Coursera is only augmenting traditional brick-and-mortar universities, not hurting them, Levin said.

“We’re not toppling universities. We’re expanding their impact,” he said. “I invested 43 years of my life at Yale, and I didn’t do that because it’s bankrupt, but highly powerful, profoundly transformational.”

At the same time, it is replacing some of those universities, Levin conceded. It’s just doing it slowly.

“Over time, yes, there will be some substitution of online degrees for brick-and-mortar, sure,” he said. “But it’ll happen slowly. Access is first, not disruption.”

His next move with Coursera will be to expand its “specializations,” like computer science, which offer certificates recognized by companies, and to expand on-demand course offerings. Right now, most of the Coursera courses are offered the way university classes are (livestreamed Tuesday afternoon, 4 pm to 6 pm or some such), but this mirroring is silly on the Internet, Levin argued.

“Professors have this idea that students arrive at one time, work in lockstep,” he said. “That’s not what Internet users want. They might want to binge in one day.”

He’s confident that he’ll convince those professors to see things his way.

“It’s one by one, winning them over, converting them,” he said. “And they will convert.”

This article originally appeared on

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