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UK's Open University puts a Microsoftie at the helm

Is it a mismatch to pair a Microsoft executive with the Open University?

The Open University is the UK's leading distance-learning institution, and has long prided itself on "promot[ing] educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential."

This, coupled with a core principle of "valu[ing] diversity highly," suggests that it's a natural fit for a long-time Microsoft educator to be its vice-chancellor, right? [Cue sarcasm.]

Well, maybe not. While Microsoft has long been a leader in non-discriminatory hiring practices, it has fared less well in openness to new ideas like open source. And yet Open University named Martin Bean, general manager of Product Management, Marketing and Business Development for Microsoft's global education products group, as its fifth vice-chancellor, as noted in The Guardian.

A classic mismatch?

Nah. Bean has a wealth of experience in online training, precisely what Open University needs. Plus he has spent considerable time at Novell, Sylvan Learning, Thomson Learning and New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, so it's not as if his entire life has been consumed by Microsoft.

Even if it had been, Microsoft executives have shown a remarkable ability to change and shelve their once standard-issue animus toward open source and other ideas once leaving Microsoft. Kevin Johnson left Microsoft to take the CEO role at Juniper Networks, where Linux and other open-source technology is practically a job requirement: he has thrived. Paul Maritz left Microsoft after 14 years to become CEO of VMware, which also has a cozy relationship with open source, and appears to have had little trouble making the shift.

In sum, Microsoft's blind spot to open source, in particular, may be institutional, not personal, and Sam Ramji, Bob Duffner, Bill Hilf, and others are making great strides in remedying that.

I suspect that Bean will have no trouble embracing Open University's charter, and with his depth of experience should be a real boon to the university and its mission.