Building ‘the perfect university’

CEO of the Minerva Project says it starts with a clean slate, without the baggage of a traditional school.

What if you could create a new kind of university? What would it be like?

For Ben Nelson, CEO of the Minerva Project, it would combine a redefined student body, a reinvented curriculum, rigorous academic standards, cutting-edge technology and an immersive global experience. Nelson launched Minerva in 2011 to provide an Ivy League-like education at a fraction of the cost.

Although classes take place online, Nelson, who was previously the president of online photo service Snapfish, emphasizes that Minerva is not a MOOC in any way.

“It’s not massive and it’s not open. The courses are online, but the experiences are residential.” The inaugural class of 33 students will attend tuition-free, but will pay room and board. Subsequent classes will pay just $10,000 tuition. “It’s the most selective undergraduate class in the history of American higher education,” Nelson says. “We initially thought we would have 15 or 19 students, but we got close to 2,500 applications. It’s pretty stunning.”

I saw a debate that you and Anant Agarwal of edX participated in over the issue of “more clicks, fewer bricks.” The audience was not on your side at first, but a post-debate poll showed that opinion had swung your way. What was the turning point?

That was clearly hostile territory. I think people’s conception of online education has been colored by all the coverage of MOOCs. But online education existed well before MOOCs, and takes many different forms: adaptive learning platforms, live seminars—technologies that connect two different locations around the world where you have gathering students. I think all Anant and I really needed to do was point that out. The second thing going against us was the idea that online learning is unproven, that we just don’t know how effective it is. That’s probably the safest place for people who want to deny that there’s going to be technological progress to hide.

But evidence shows otherwise?

Yes. There is actually a lot of proof about what’s effective and what isn’t in higher education. The majority of the proof showed that what’s currently done is not effective—a 10 percent retention rate for lectures two years out, for example. You simply can’t get any worse.

And clearly, if you use technology, it must be able to get better, simply because you can iterate. You can say, “Hey, this works. This doesn’t. Let’s change. Let’s continue to make improvements.”

In announcing the Minerva Project you said you are “effectively building a perfect university.” That’s a bold statement.

Most institutions get built over time primarily by accident. Whether it’s a university, a charity, a business, a government—they have a founding principle. But, as they evolve, the goals of the founding principle often wind up being in conflict.

This is especially true in any kind of enterprise where money is involved. You are in a market and people pay you for services. The problem is that when you evolve around the profit rule, your original vision is compromised.

We are designing a university from the ground up and we are designing every aspect of it to fulfill one goal—to educate individuals who we believe have the real potential to be innovators and leaders in a variety of different fields from a global perspective. It’s not to educate the world’s best tax accountants or concert violinists or rural family doctors. Those are all noble, important professions, but Minerva is more focused on the people who are going to be creating or leading the major institutions of the world.

Everything about our institutional design is meant to, 1) create the environment and infrastructure to best deliver that training and 2) to create a mechanism that will self-heal. That means, if there is any temptation for us to do things that won’t promote that kind of outcome, we simply won’t do it institutionally.

A traditional university can’t do that?

The only time you can really create an institution like that is at the beginning. If universities today were to say, “We’d like to just do everything that Minerva does,” they would have to make some choices that would be almost impossible to make—they couldn’t, for example, do collegiate athletics. It doesn’t fit in our model.

If they say, “We want to make sure that we get this amazing global exposure like Minerva,” the problem is they’ve got this enormous mutlibillion-dollar campus. What do they do with it?

It’s impossible to change the wholesale nature of an institution years later. You can do aspects of it, such as adopting a new curriculum. It’s not easy, but certainly more doable.

So there are aspects where, frankly, we hope that universities will wholesale change themselves all the time, but it’s more likely that they could only change parts as opposed to the whole thing.

So Minerva will have the ability to evolve and adapt as needed?

Correct. And that means you have very low fixed infrastructure, so you can evolve in many ways. We are designing our courses to be 15 to 19 students per class, but if it turns out the optimal number is 14 or 21, we’ll just change it.

Let’s say that a certain field of study doesn’t make any sense anymore. Our faculty is not tenured, so if there is no relevance to a field 20 or 30 years from now, well, we just change that particular department. It will be very easy for us to evolve.

You alluded to the fact that Minerva will be a global school. Explain.

We have these rotation programs around the world. Our first rotation year is in Buenos Aires and Berlin. If Buenos Aires is no longer relevant for our students, we’ll just go to different cities. We don’t buy buildings in any of these locations. We lease or rent them.

Everything about the structure allows for flexibility. The value of being the world’s greatest university—and striving to that goal—is a larger incentive than any other possible short-term or medium-term gain. If somebody says, “I’ll donate $100 million to your university on the condition that you admit my idiot kid”—which happens at almost every elite university in the country—we can just say no. It’s just simply not worth it for us to tarnish our brand for a bribe.

You’ll be in a different city each year. How will that work?

San Francisco is the first year. Every student comes to San Francisco. They go through the cornerstone curriculum their freshman year, the common freshman experience. And then they break into cohorts of 150 students.

The cohorts then travel to different cities over the next six semesters. And when they show up in each city, they have the infrastructure for living in that city. The living component is just the residence hall, the residence life manager that manages the hall—there will be RAs that coordinate things, and there will be public safety, psychological surveys and, of course, health care in every city.

The academic component is delivered place-independent via our technology platform. The professor can be anywhere in the world. The co-curricular opportunities, the ones that integrate the students into the city, will be handled by residence life managers. They are the ones that arrange all of the experiential learning that occurs in the cities, exposing the students to everything that the city has to offer in really deep ways.

That’s kind of the immersive component. The extracurriculars—when you are doing student newspapers, student government, what have you—actually take advantage of the fact that you have this global network of students. Imagine what a student newspaper would look like if it had 25 foreign bureaus. Pretty powerful stuff.

It sounds like a logistical nightmare.

Well, when you try to build what we’re trying to build, you don’t compromise. You don’t say, “We want to give you truly a global-immersive environment, but we might as well do it from Topeka because it’s cheap.” You could do that, but then you don’t really give the students that opportunity. What we’ll find at Minerva are difficult choices that are made simple by the mission.

So the students are together in a particular city, but the classes are delivered online?

Correct. Minerva takes the 16-person seminar and improves upon that model. We take an existing analog offline and make it better using technology. We have created a platform which is more effective than gathering 16 people around a table.

And again, that is a decision where we could have said, “In every city you go to, we’re going to go and congregate in classrooms.” That’s easy. It’s familiar. It’s something the students understand.

The problem is it’s sub-optimal because we’re trying to deliver a scaffolded curriculum, a curriculum where every course builds on the courses that have come before it and provides students with choice. The technology enables the kinds of active learning that, offline, is difficult to impossible. We believe—and we have evidence—that our platform is superior to that experience.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.


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