Meet Shai Reshef, the philanthropist and visionary behind the world’s only tuition-free, international online university.
University of the People has its headquarters on the West Coast, but its professors and administrators are mostly on the East Coast. Its IT staff is in the West Bank.
And its 1,500 students live in more than 135 countries — including every Middle Eastern and African nation.
So it should come as no surprise that Shai Reshef, the 58-year-old secular Israeli founder and pro bono president of this tuition-free, online university — the only academic institution of its kind — divides his time between New York, Tel Aviv, Pasadena, Calif., and “everywhere else,” considering himself a “citizen of the world.”
Reshef, who has invested $3 million of his own money in the three-year-old UoPeople, has a master’s in Chinese politics from the University of Michigan. He made his fortune as chairman of the Kidum Group, an Israeli test preparation company sold in 2005 to Kaplan, the multinational education company that grew out of Stanley Kaplan’s SAT-prep business.
Physically short in stature, the self-deprecating Reshef is a child of Polish Jewish Holocaust refugees, husband of painter Rotem Reshef and father of four college-age children. However, he is reluctant to talk about himself, repeatedly dodging this reporter’s questions about his background and personal life, preferring instead to share stories about UoPeople’s students.
With his ambitious goal of revolutionizing access to education and bringing world peace in the process, he is quickly becoming a giant of sorts — Foreign Policy magazine recently included him on its list of “100 global thinkers.” While not yet accredited, the university — which so far offers degrees in business administration and computer science to those capable of doing all the coursework in English — has attracted the support and attention of heavy-hitters like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google for Nonprofits, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, New York University, UNESCO and the Clinton Global Initiative.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jewish Week: What spurred you to start UoPeople?
Reshef: I was in education for over 20 years, and was in the Netherlands for three years, developing an online partnership between universities. ... It was great to realize how powerful online learning can be, but at the same time it was too expensive, most people could not afford it. ... When I sold the business to Kaplan, I tried retirement but it’s not really for me. And I wanted to give back. I said OK, how can I give back, what do I want to do? I decided I wanted something dealing with education, because if you educate a person you can change his life, and if you educate many people, you can change the world.
You keep costs down because all the materials used are open-source and all your professors, and many of your staff, are volunteers. Are qualified people really willing to teach courses for free?
I learned about the whole Internet culture of people sharing and teaching for free when a friend told me about Cramster, the homework-help site. I realized there were hundreds of professors getting up every morning and all day long helping students for “karma points.” Every karma point is five cents, so basically you work half an hour to get 25 cents. Eventually you get a free T-shirt. They don’t do it for the money, but they do want to get the reward and if the student doesn’t give karma points, next time he asks a question, all the professors say, “Don’t help him.”
... After the New York Times wrote about me starting UoPeople in 2009, I got hundreds of professors e-mailing saying they wanted to volunteer.
Volunteering to occasionally tutor kids doing their homework is one thing, but teaching a course is a lot of work. How do you get them to follow through?
If it’s a position where we totally rely on them and they can’t walk away, we pay them honorarium. If they teach a course, it’s about 100-150 hours of work, and they get about $400. It’s not much, but it creates the bonding, the contract, the feeling that we appreciate them and give something in return. Most of our instructors continue to do so. Many of them by the end of the course give us back the honorarium as a donation.
We have accepted so far 1,500 students, and we have over 3,000 volunteer professors; 100 we really use, and the rest we’re unable to use yet because we don’t have the finances to build a platform to screen them all.
What’s in it for the volunteers, besides the $400?
They come to us for several reasons. Some, many, come because they want to give back, want to help people. Some come because they’re extremely interested in the diversity of our students — our students include survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and there’s a lot of diversity and amazing stories. Some of the volunteers are retired professors. What can be better than waking up in the morning, spending three or four hours with great students and you feel great and keep yourself busy? I think the volunteers are our greatest asset. We wouldn’t be here without them. Our provost is from Columbia. How much would it cost us if we had to pay him?
Is everyone who works for UoPeople a volunteer?
We have a paid person in charge of vetting the volunteers and someone who is in charge of admissions — that’s not a job for volunteers. Also we have our IT being developed in Ramallah, through ASAL Technologies in the West Bank, and these people are getting paid.
Was that a political decision to contract with a firm in Ramallah?
Our students come to us to improve their standard of living. That’s why we offer degrees in business and computers: the two things likeliest to help them find jobs. However, when they study with us, every time they take a course they’re being put together with students from 20-30 different countries. A B.A. is 40 courses, so 40 times they meet people from other countries, from the entire globe. Think what happens every time a Palestinian takes a class with another Israeli, every time a Turk takes a class with another Greek and every time, I don’t know, an Indian meets another Pakistani. We believe we open the minds, develop a shifting attitude, which is often being carried outside of the class. So for them it’s the education, a better chance for a job. We beyond that feel we make peace closer in the world. It’s definitely our mission. So, we chose to work in the West Bank both because they’re doing an excellent job, there are amazing talents there and it’s way cheaper than anywhere else. And if we make peace closer, even better.
Why don’t you use any audio or video materials, or use Skype to have synchronous classes?
You need to understand our students: 20 percent are using dial-up. They study from Internet cafés, some connect to the Internet with cellphones. Some have computer but not Internet, so they work on their computer at home, then upload their work at the Internet café, download the new work from the classroom and go back home to study. Video is out of the question, because if you go into an Internet café in developing countries they are taking one line and using it for 10 computers. There’s not enough broadband.
These are students who have no other alternatives. They can’t go to university, either for financial reasons or because there aren’t available spots. Some are accepted to a university, but it’s in the big city and they can’t get there, or they have to keep working or take care of their family.
So how do the classes work then?
Every course is 10 weeks long and starts on a Wednesday. Let’s say the first student to log on is Chinese. He goes into classroom, finds the lecture notes, the reading assignment, homework assignment and the discussion question of the week. The discussion question is the core of our study. Later the Chinese student comes back in to see what others added to his comment. All week long the discussion develops under the supervision of the instructor. The instructor is there to read everything and to get involved if someone says something wrong and nobody is able to correct, if somebody asked a question and no one answered it, if discussion needs to be moderated. The homework is graded by peers under the supervision of instructor who can overrule the peer grades. ... It’s very intensive: 15-20 hours per week per course per student. But it’s very powerful, very engaging.
What are the top 10 countries represented in your student body?
The United States, even though more than half of them weren’t born in the United States. We don’t ask them if they’re documented, but we know they were not born here ... China is big, Haiti is big. Nigeria is big. Uganda, Brazil, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia. The two single-biggest regions for us are Africa and the Middle East. Eighty-five percent of our supporters on Facebook are from Muslim countries. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.
Are any of your students Palestinian?
We have students from Gaza and the West Bank. We also have Israeli students.
You’re raising money right now. What do you want to do with it?
Right now we have 1,500 students, and the only thing that stops us from growing is financial. We are tuition-free, but not free. We tell our students it costs $100 per exam [one per course], and they are expected to cover the cost of the exam. If they can’t, we have variety of scholarships, including micro-scholarships, where students can go online, make their case, get people to donate to their scholarship.
Also, one of the problems we have is we don’t have money to market. People find out from the media, Facebook, and so our students are more than 80 percent male. We need to let the women know we’re here for them. We need the world to know about us. We are the most Jewish thing out there: tikkun olam, light unto nations. I believe what we are doing is the most Jewish thing out there. The university is not Jewish or Israeli, it’s international, but I think it’s the very right thing to do. I think as a Jew that’s what you should do. You should help.
Is this the future for all higher education?
UNESCO projects that by 2025 there will be a million people worldwide deprived from university education, not because they’re not qualified but because there are not enough seats in the existing universities. Where will these people study? ... Right now governments in developing countries are taking the few millions they have for education and building campuses that can’t serve enough people. I want to show them this way you can educate every single person in your country and hardly spend any money.
Other than adding students, how do you see UoPeople expanding, provided it can raise the money needed?
We’d like to move in several directions: one, offer additional programs. Business administration and computer science are important, but other things, like health care training, are also needed. We might also go into other languages. English brings people together from all over the world, but if someone doesn’t know English, then it’s a barrier. To take our program and translate it into Arabic or Chinese or French, would open it up to more people.
Tell me about the special project in Haiti.
Through the Clinton Global Initiative, we teamed up with local NGOs and build centers with electricity, backup generators, satellite Internet connection. We go into tent cities to find students. So far we have accepted about 100. They come to the center for four hours, and we give them a meal after they study — for many it’s the only meal they get all day. It’s expensive to run, however: you need guards 24 hours, there are things you don’t think about, electricity isn’t available every day. But it’s important for the country. To have 250 university graduates in Haiti will have tremendous impact. Whether they want it or not, we’re the main prevention of brain drain. A lot of people of good will bring people from Haiti to the U.S. to study — that’s great for the student, great for the donor, but it’s bad for Haiti because most of them will never go back.
What is the source of your drive? Is there something in your upbringing that influenced you?
A good friend of mine once told me, “When I give I get much more than what I give.” That’s so true. I cannot answer your question, because it’s not something I thought about before. Either a psychologist or myself needs to sit for hours to see where did it come from? But I started it and it’s so successful that it feels so good. It feels worthwhile. I’ve worked hard in my life, but I don’t think I ever worked so many hours as I work now. But I wouldn’t say I work hard, because I enjoy every moment. I enjoy every second of the day. There are things I do that aren’t fun, things that are harder than I think they will be, but the support I get from the world amazes me ... I really feel that I’m getting more than I’m giving. I really don’t feel that what I’m doing is actually a sacrifice. I’m enjoying it, it’s fun. ... I really believe the most successful person when you’re about to die and look back on life, should ask what did you do for the world? I think I will die very happy, I hope. I’ll let you know.
Any experiences that stand out that have influenced you?
In Haiti, I went to welcome our students. I went there for a few days. I went to the center and traveled to homes to see where people live. The last day, we were on the way from center to my hotel, we were driving, it was 7 o’clock and getting dark. All of a sudden I saw the body of a boy on the street. A 5- or 6-year-old. And people were just walking by. I said to our Haitian program director in the car with me, “There’s a body on the street.” He didn’t want to stop talking about what we were already discussing, and when I pressed him, he said, “Yes, I know, but we have a lot of work to catch up on.” It was the time of cholera, and the bodies would pile up in the street, a truck would come pick them up once a day. It made me see how rough you can become, how some of our students really need what we do for them.
You’re an Israeli Jew, and the majority of your university’s Facebook fans are in Muslim countries. Are you hoping that UoPeople will reduce the amount of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world?
It will help in both directions. If we had tens of thousands of Arabs and Jews studying together, the perception of each other would change ... Every nation in the world thinks they’re the best, but we live in small world, the only way we’ll succeed is to be open and to collaborate with each other ... Do we believe everyone who gets an education will be a peace-lover? No. But people with education have a bright future and are more likely to support peace because they have something to lose. People without education have nothing to lose.
To learn more about University of the People, go to www.uopeople.org.