Emerging Economies Summit: Minerva boss defends overhaul of teaching at Arab university

Head of San Francisco-based start-up university tackles ‘rumours’ about reforming degrees at UAE’s Zayed University

October 20, 2021
Source: Getty

The founder of the Minerva Project has defended his institution’s role in overhauling teaching at an Emirati university following fierce online protests against the partnership.

Ben Nelson, chief executive of Minerva, a San Francisco-based university created in 2011 with a mission to reform undergraduate education, told Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit that criticism of his company’s tie-up with Zayed University, which has campuses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, was misplaced. He said improved educational outcomes would follow when new Minerva-backed interdisciplinary degrees were introduced.

It follows a social media storm last week that saw #saveZayedUniversity trending on Twitter, in English and Arabic, amid concerns about the start of the first of three Minerva-designed degrees this autumn.

In July, the university – which was founded as a women-only institution in 1998, although it began admitting men in 2008 – announced that, by 2026, it would abolish traditional degree courses in favour of interdisciplinary degrees taught in a “blended method” both online and in-person.

The courses – computational science, social innovation and business transformation – will also include workplace experiences and, under the Minerva blueprint, will drop lectures for more interactive small-group discussions.

“If every university in the world was to ban lectures…they would dramatically improve educational outcomes,” Mr Nelson told THE’s summit in Dubai, held in association with the United Arab Emirates University.

But the Minerva reforms have raised questions among alumni about whether their Zayed University degrees will be devalued, while there are also concerns among some Emirati teaching staff that they will be forced out as courses focused on local culture will be replaced by more generic US-style critical thinking classes.

“Faculty who have spent decades of their lives improving and enriching the education system in the UAE are asked to pack and leave,” claimed one academic anonymously on Twitter.

Mr Nelson, an executive at the photo sharing service Snapfish prior to founding Minerva, told THE’s summit that much of the online speculation was “rumours from professors who are not involved with the programme”.

In fact, local academic leaders and scholars would be heavily involved in the creation of the new degrees, which will draw on local knowledge and expertise, because the Minerva model was tailored to an Emirati context, said Mr Nelson.

“We work directly with the academic leadership – there is a dean of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, like any other dean, who will hire faculty, and we will train them to take their subject matter expertise and marry it with the pedagogical framework that Minerva brings to create these programmes,” he said.

“Over time, Zayed will shift its entire undergraduate programme to Minerva’s interdisciplinary approach, so you will see a larger and larger proportion of Zayed faculty who will teach within the College of Interdisciplinary Studies,” he added.

Responding to concerns that Minerva’s blueprint for success – which so far has been run on a high-achieving cohort of international students based largely in San Francisco, London and Berlin – might not work for students in an Emirati context, Mr Nelson was adamant that it would. He said the model had been tested on a variety of student cohorts, including at an elite US college but also on 800 “massively disadvantaged students” in rural India, “many of whom had below-proficiency English-language skills”.

“The results we saw there were much greater than what we had seen among already academically excelling students,” he insisted, adding that the perception that Minerva’s intake was akin to the highly privileged undergraduates of Ivy League universities was also mistaken.

Zayed University has described the online speculation as “biased and unfair”, stating that the “standing faculties at the university remain in continuous course development, which is conducted in consultation with the student body as well as community recommendations to preserve students’ interest”.

Mr Nelson also announced that Minerva would be working with the University of Miami on a similar project, insisting that its active learning model was leading to outstanding graduate employment outcomes on a par with Princeton University, albeit with far more economically disadvantaged students.


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