The Former President of Yale Just Became CEO of a Hot Education Startup

Yale University.

Photo by Francisco Anzola

In major news for online education, Coursera announced Monday that former Yale University president Richard Levin will take the helm as chief executive in mid-April.

It’s a big endorsement from a traditional educator for the California-based online courses provider. Coursera is just two years old but has already upended conventional notions about what classes and learning can look like. Levin wrapped up his 20-year tenure as president of Yale in May.

Online courses remain controversial in the academic sphere. In January, an annual report by the Babson Survey Research Group found that 39 percent of educators disagreed with the statement that MOOCs (massive open online courses) “are a sustainable method for offering courses”—up from 28 percent who said the same in the previous year. A mainstream face like Levin could lend legitimacy to Coursera and online course advocates.

With some 7 million people enrolled in its hundreds of online offerings, Coursera isn’t lacking for a following. The platform has partnerships with more than 100 universities worldwide, including prestigious institutions like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and has helped make the MOOC acronym an almost household term.

But Levin could expand that reach even further and figure out how to make some money to boot. Coursera said in a release that two of the new CEO’s primary goals will be to bolster revenue and increase the company’s presence in China.

China is already the second-biggest source of enrollment for Coursera, and Levin told the Yale Daily News that the country is a “huge potential market.” Levin is well positioned to expand Coursera’s influence in China because of the ties he forged there while working at Yale. During his presidency, he focused heavily on promoting Yale’s relationship with China and improving the university’s brand recognition across Asia.

“I have a sense of how the Chinese educational system operates,” Levin told the Yale Daily News. “There is a great interest in China in using more interactive forms of instruction.”

In addition to opening connections in China, Levin will also give Coursera new access to an elite network of educators across the world, thanks to the influential role he’s played shaping the leadership of other universities. His former administrators have gone on to serve as presidents of a long list of institutions that includes Cambridge, Oxford, and MIT.

Coursera is a hot startup as it is. But adding an Ivy-covered reputation can’t hurt.