Launching an “Ivy League” institution with tuition fees that undercut elite US universities by half while guaranteeing students an education based not in one location but in six of the world’s most vibrant cities is a recipe that could revolutionise the operation of higher education institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.
This innovative model is being spearheaded by Ben Nelson, who made his name as the chief executive of the online photo printing website Snapfish.
Nelson’s latest role is as chief executive of the for-profit Minerva Project - a new university backed by $25 million (£16.5 million) of venture capital funding that will begin teaching in 2015, when 150 students head to San Francisco to begin their education at a radically different type of college.
Minerva (named for the Roman goddess of wisdom) has no campus. All its lectures - or, more accurately, seminars - are delivered online. However, unlike traditional models for online education, students will learn together, and stay together, throughout their four-year degrees, living in dorms and mixing outside classes.
“For decades there have been two main types of students: those who live at home and commute to school, and those who are based on a campus,” Nelson explains. “But if you want to have students who are the future leaders of the world, you want to give them the option of living in many urban environments across the world. That’s what we want to do.”
Nelson is clear that Minerva is aiming for the very summit of the US university system: it wants to take on the Ivy League and beat it.
To this end, it has assembled a prestigious academic advisory board to help guide its development. Members include Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University; Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware; Bob Kerrey, a former US senator from Nebraska; and Lee Shulman, professor emeritus at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.
Minerva will have five colleges: four in the school of arts and science, and a school of business. San Francisco is confirmed as the institution’s first residential base but Nelson has set his sights on speedy global expansion. “We will be launching in two cities per year for the first 10 to 15 years. We’re looking at the big urban centres: the Londons, Johannesburgs, Istanbuls, Tel Avivs, Mumbais, Shanghais, Sydneys and São Paolos of the world.”
Students will be expected to fly between sites, taking in a total of six different locations during their courses. Seminars will be delivered online but students will always take classes with the same set of peers.
However, these classes are far from traditional. They are not occasions for experts to pass on know-ledge. Rather, all online contact time between student and tutor will focus on developing skills and intellectual approaches and stimulating learning. Students will be expected to learn and master the facts and figures that underpin their course in their own time, from free or cheaply available learning resources.
“If a course can be effectively delivered via a lecture, we will not offer it,” Nelson says. “It doesn’t reach the level for which college credit should be awarded. We don’t want to…charge you money to learn basic info. There are better ways of doing that.”
Instead, in their first year, all students, regardless of their subject, will take four “cornerstone” courses that cover skills that Nelson believes have been forgotten by US universities: theoretical analysis, empirical analysis, complex systems analysis and multimodal communications.
“We want our students to develop a series of habits of the mind that will allow them to be successful, but these four skills have been lost from US higher education. It is not that they don’t exist, it’s just that they are no longer a part of graduating,” he says.
“You could go to a US university and get - perhaps by chance - a phenomenal, well-rounded education. But universities don’t ensure that all their graduates do that. In fact, I’d argue that they don’t ensure any of their graduates can do that.”
To maintain these skills, Minerva students will not receive the results of the cornerstone courses until they graduate, three years later. As they progress through the university, they will continue to be assessed on the four skills and their grades will be revised up or down as they go along.
“Existing universities essentially say: ‘We know you could learn economics, biology, chemistry on your own; but we’re a university so we’re going to charge you thousands of dollars to certify that you know them.’ We just don’t think that’s sustainable or moral,” Nelson says.
Minerva’s founding dean is Stephen Kosslyn, who comes from Stanford, where he had been serving as director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He says the Minerva Project is the “opportunity of a lifetime” to make “meaningful” change.
“Higher education needs to be shaken up,” he declares. “Much of what is available today could be vastly improved if more attention were paid to the science of learning.
“We know an enormous amount about how people learn, what they remember and what motivates them - all of which has direct implications for teaching and student learning outcomes. The…curriculum we’re developing at Minerva will incorporate these teaching methodologies to ensure that students master mater-ial and can use it creatively at work and in their daily lives.”
Kosslyn is aware that Minerva will have to quickly establish a strong academic reputation if it is genuinely to compete with the Ivy League, but he believes that with the correct recruitment - of academics and of students - this can be done.
“Our reputation will rest on hiring a superb faculty, people on the cutting edge of knowledge in their field and dedicated to life-changing teaching. It will also depend on the success of our students after they graduate, and we will do everything in our power to make them the most successful individuals on the planet.”
Nelson believes that his institution’s unusual set-up will ensure that it can tempt some of the brightest young people - who may be disillusioned with the cost and approach of elite universities - to sign up.
“If you are interested in the Brown, Columbia, Harvard or Yale model - where you are put in a castle for four years and sequestered away from society, going through a curriculum that frankly isn’t that demanding - then Minerva is not right for you,” he says.
To staff the university, Nelson is keen to attract scholars who, through no fault of their own, are unable to find teaching positions at universities. These could range from new PhD graduates to academics approaching the end of their career.
“We are looking for professors who are at transition points in their careers, which is not something that universities do very well. There’s a huge glut of PhDs but very few jobs.
“For these people, who are early on in their career and maybe didn’t get the position they deserved, they can spend a period of time at Minerva where they can teach, and do research, and then transition into next stage,” Nelson says.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “professor at Oxford or Cambridge who is aged 67 and is forced to retire”, Nelson says. “These people have a lot of years ahead where they want to be active in academia. Minerva can provide them with an interesting opportunity.”
Staff, who can be based anywhere in the world, would have to teach 30 weeks a year. They would have classes only two days a week, with at most about 70 students a semester.
“Our faculty model is quite different,” Nelson continues, for it offers academics a “huge amount of freedom”.
However, he says, not everyone will find it appealing.
“If you are a professor who [does] not care at all about teaching, is only interested in research, needs to be in a lab all the time, wants unlimited resources…Minerva is not the right place for you.”