President Series: A look at Minerva, the world’s most innovative university

New President Mike Magee shares its story, secrets to success and what makes the institution so unique.
By: | June 10, 2022
Photos courtesy of Minerva University

Mike Magee, Minerva president

More selective than every Stanford, MIT and Ivy League school, the small but mighty global disruptor Minerva University is pushing the bounds of what higher education could look like in the future. Perhaps few will strive to be as far-reaching – with its leased campuses spread across seven cities worldwide – or as open-minded in its embrace of seminar-style classes.

But Minerva’s quest to be very different, to make global citizens out of all those who enroll, does present a strong case for a revolutionary model in a time of political polarization, world conflict, pandemic-fueled panic and isolation. This creative offshoot of the Minerva Project, which got its accreditation last year, might be only 1,000 students strong. But new president Mike Magee foresees growth coming more holistically, with its learners becoming leaders on the world stage.

“When I think about the most intractable challenges that we’re facing, whether it be the pandemic or the war in Ukraine or the climate crisis, the common thread is a total failure of leaders across the globe to understand each other and to cooperate across lines of difference,” said Magee, the former founder of Chiefs for Change and longtime professor, who was installed as Minerva’s president just a couple months ago. “People at Minerva are learning that at a very early age. They are the future leaders of businesses, governments, nonprofit organizations and movements around the world. It gives us great cause for optimism and is sort of our reason for existing.”

Despite its selectivity (less than 1% in 2021), one of Minerva’s distinctive traits is its diversity. The San Francisco-based university pulls in students from 70 countries and allows them to study in the U.S. while facilitating multiple experiential learning endeavors in London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Taipei and Hyderabad, India. Because they work in groups of 150, Magee says “they have to work with each other on projects across every conceivable line of difference. That is foundational to ethics and foundational to our university.”

He says those collaborations can be transformational, paraphrasing a sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “He talks about the way in which we are all across every line of difference across the globe interconnected. He calls it a single garment of destiny. I think that is the value that we are living into at Minerva.”

Another positive is affordability, with standard pricing at Minerva set far lower than its competitors. So far, the framework is working. Minerva was just named the top university in the world for innovation in the World’s Universities with Real Impact (WURI) report, ahead of Arizona State, Stanford and MIT. Magee admits he and the university are just getting started, though he says, “I’m more excited than ever about the future of Minerva.” University Business sat down with the new president to find out more about Minerva’s missions and place in higher ed:

What drew you to Minerva? What makes it different from other institutions?

One is that it is uniquely global and immersive. The innovation to create a four-year undergraduate program structured around rotations across the entire world is quite different from study abroad programs. Our students are living in these cities in a real way. Part of the reason that works is that we have a project-based approach to undergraduate learning that asks our students to treat the city they’re living in as their classroom. The second thing is, our students are uniquely ethical and purpose-driven. We teach into that. Our classes are designed to be deeply pragmatic, to help students think about how their learning is related to their purpose and what they want to do while they’re at Minerva and after they leave.

Minerva students are engaged in end-of-year ceremonies called “Consequence,” which push students to participate in a complex set of questions around civil discourse. Is that theme becoming more prevalent in higher ed?

The question about whether we can have civil discourse, whether we should have civil discourse and what it even looks like seems to be happening on every college campus in the U.S. I think the bigger question is, is it structured in such a way that can facilitate and foster civil discourse? At Minerva, we’ve built the need for civil discourse into the structure of our university. It’s a critical part of our institution.

Two students from Ukraine reached out to you on a Zoom call early on with two students from Brazil. Can you share more about them and the students you have from Ukraine in your community?

We have 49 Ukrainian students right now. They are in an enormous amount of pain because of what’s happening in their country. We’re doing our best to support them. We’ve hosted forums about the war, not only to give space to Ukrainian students, but to give the community an opportunity to talk. We also have Russian students, and we’re committed to civil discourse, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Despite that, there was a sense of joy [from the two Ukraine students] that they had an opportunity to talk about what they love about Minerva, how their year had gone and ways in which they want to improve it. That’s not to dismiss the trauma that some of our students are experiencing, but in this moment, the global perspective they’ve gained at Minerva really matters to them.

An important issue facing higher ed, especially with the pandemic and inflation, is affordability for students. How is Minerva staying competitive on bottom-line costs?

We are as highly selective as any selective university in the world. We are also needs blind demographic-wise. We are committed to accepting any student who meets our bar for admission, no matter what their background. That’s an important commitment for us. In designing the global residency program for our undergraduates, we made a fateful decision to not take on debt that we have to pay off. We lease our residency halls around the world. We are also not going to participate in the arms race to make college campuses look like country clubs. That is not our purpose, mission or vision as a university. That is a major part of the reason the Minerva education costs well less than half what most highly selective private universities cost.

What are the biggest challenges facing higher education?

One is affordability. Everyone knows that the cost of higher education has been spiraling. It well outpaces the increase in cost of living every year. As a dad who has two daughters at highly selective, highly expensive, U.S. universities right now, I feel this myself. Something has to be done about it. Minerva does not participate in U.S. federal loan programs. We have our own approach to providing students with loans who need them, but we also cap them. We don’t believe students should take on massive amounts of debt. Not everyone can run a university based on global rotations in seven cities around the world. But I think there are lessons that can be drawn from Minerva about affordability and the way in which you can offer a truly outstanding undergraduate education without exorbitant costs.

The other one is there are significant numbers of students who don’t know why they’re pursuing an undergraduate education, except that it’s somehow connected to their social mobility. If all you have is that a bachelor’s degree somehow improves your ability to earn a living, it doesn’t motivate you to learn. That’s dangerous for higher education. We do not gear classroom experiences towards the memorization and regurgitation of facts. We want students to be able to take whatever knowledge they are learning and apply it across disciplines in a meaningful way. We believe deeply in project-based and experiential learning. The learning stays with you more deeply.


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