Higher Ed

Inside and Outed

Nervy Minerva: Taking on Harvard

CJ Westerberg, August 11, 2013 12:35 PM


Update: The Missing Half of the Education Debate via Harvard Business Review

"I didn't have habits of mind
that a liberal arts education
was supposed to have given me."

- Ben Nelson 

CIMG0353.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

This week-end's must-read article is Ben Nelson: The Man Who Would Overthrow Harvard via WSJ.  It's one of those throw-down-the-gauntlet articles, full of statements that will definitely get you thinking differently about higher education, especially about those higher ed institutions which mainly subscribe to the residential lecture model and less of the "maker" model combining hand and mind or those emphasizing real-world applications. Whether you agree with everything or not, give it a go.  Here's the back-story and concept:

"'If you think as we do,' says Ben Nelson, 'Harvard's the world's most valuable brand.' He doesn't mean only in higher education. 'Our goal is to displace Harvard. We're perfectly happy for Harvard to be the world's second most valuable brand.'

Listening to Mr. Nelson at his spare offices in San Francisco's Mid-Market, a couple of adjectives come to mind. Generous (to Harvard) isn't one. Nor immodest. Here's a big talker with bold ideas. Crazy, too, in that Silicon Valley take-a-flier way.

Mr. Nelson founded and runs the Minerva Project. The school touts itself as the first elite --- make that "e-lite" --- American university to open in 100 years. Or it will be when the first class enters in 2015. Mr. Nelson, who previously led the online photo-sharing company Snapfish, wants to topple and transcend the American academy's economic and educational model.

And why not? Higher education's product-delivery system- a professor droning to a limited number of students in a room - dates back a thousand years. The industry's physical plant (dorms, classrooms, gyms) often a century or more. Its most expensive employees, tenured faculty, can't be fired. The price of its product (tuition) and operating costs have outpaced inflation by multiples.

In similar circumstances, Wal-Mart took out America's small retail chains. Amazon crushed Borders. And Harvard will have to make way for . . . Minerva? 'There is no better case to do something that I can think of in the history of the world,' says Mr. Nelson.

A new global middle class - - - some 1.5 billion people - - -
desperately wants an elite American education.
"The existing model doesn't work . . ."
- Ben Nelson (link added by editor)

Some people regarded as serious folks have bought the pitch, superlatives and all. Larry Summers, the former Harvard president, agreed to be the chairman of Minerva's advisory board. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who led the New School in New York from 2001-10, heads the fundraising arm. Stephen Kosslyn, previously dean of social sciences at Harvard, is Minerva's founding academic dean. Benchmark, a venture-capital firm that financed eBay and Twitter, last year made its largest-ever seed investment, $25 million, in Minerva.

Mr. Nelson calls Minerva a 'reimagined university.' Sure, there will be majors and semesters. Admission requirements will be 'extraordinarily high,' he says, as at the Ivies. Students will live together and attend classes. And one day, an alumni network will grease job and social opportunities.

university.college.students.study.jpgBut Minerva will have no hallowed halls, manicured lawns or campus. No fraternities or sports teams. Students will spend their first year in San Francisco, living together in a residence hall. If they need to borrow books, says Mr. Nelson, the city has a great public library. Who needs a student center with all of the coffee shops around?

Each of the next six semesters students will move, in cohorts of about 150, from one city to another. Residences and high-tech classrooms will be set up in the likes of Sao Paulo, London or Singapore---details to come. Professors get flexible, short-term contracts, but no tenure. Minerva is for-profit.

My first reaction was how exciting and smart the idea of having students move to different locales each semester.  Then I thought, isn't that a bit too much disruption?  Doesn't it take time for a student to simply get accustomed to the culture, let alone "settle in" with studies? Then I realized that is exactly the point.  In business and in life (not so much academia, folks), we are constantly moving from one challenge to another never quite settling in, on purpose. Even when I worked for a major corporation, we often were shifted from brand to brand - - - in this case, magazine - - - every couple of years, by design, to prevent rigor mortis from "settling in."
Guess the concept of settling in does not reflect the real-world.

"The business buzzword here is the 'unbundling' of higher education, or disaggregation. Since the founding of Oxford in the 12th century, universities, as the word implies, have tried to offer everything in one package and one place. In the world of the Web and Google, physical barriers are disappearing."

Without the cost of sports teams and music groups and by eliminating the upscale amenities that have increasingly become a part of college life, a Minerva education is expected to come at a price below half the average $50,000 per year cost of most top-end institutions.

Love the sticker price reduction. Think the amenity situation in colleges has gotten warped.
But getting rid of extracurriculars?  Hmmm. On one level, here is another area of insanity with so much money going toward football teams and stadiums and the like but isn't that a part of
school spirit-building?  Yes, it is.  But maybe every university doesn't have to be about THAT, either.  There are plenty of opportunities in communities, especially San Fran for arts and sports participation.  In fact, so many schools today struggle with providing all these sports and arts opportunities within budgets that are contracting yet wouldn't it be better to open those things up to be provided by the community, like Little League teams and the neighborhood theatre groups?

"Imagine a college newspaper with 25 foreign bureaus,
he shoots back, or the cultural attractions of the world's great cities.
"If you want to be an intercollegiate fencer,
do not come to Minerva. . . "

Other points:  You won't find any remedial or Intro level courses at Minerva.  Need or want one?  Take a MOOC instead.  Minerva isn't the place:

"'Too much of undergrad education is the dissemination of basic information that at that level of student you should expect them to know,' he says. 'We just feel we don't have any moral standing to charge you thousands of dollars for learning what you can learn for free." Legacy universities move students to their degrees through packed, required lecture classes, which Mr. Nelson calls their 'profit pools'."

Thumbnail image for LaptopU.jpgStudents catch on to these cattle call courses.  I remember one boring dark-room class in particular filled with hundreds of students in a lecture hall with an overhead projector and some professor droning on - a worthless experience and a big waste of time and money.  I'm not even sure how many times I even attended that class at this university that today has one of the most expensive tuitions in the US . . . (it didn't back then, not that it should matter).  What happened?
(illustration left: The New Yorker)  

"And yes, he adds, all schools are about raking in money, even if most don't pay taxes by claiming 'not-for-profit' status."
Ouch.  Did he have to let that cat out of the bag? With the economy as such and with parents and students deciding to go to lower cost colleges and universities, the elite high-sticker price universities will attract those who can afford or scholarship or those willing to be saddled with debt.  Not exactly the American Dream.

"In the Nelson dream curriculum, all incoming students take the same four yearlong courses. His common core won't make students read the Great Books. "We want to teach you how to think," Mr. Nelson says. A course on "multimodal communications" works on practical writing and debating skills. A "formal systems class" goes over "everything from logic to advanced stats, Big Data, to formal reasoning, to behavioral econ."
Over the next three years, Minervaites take small, discussion-heavy seminars via video from their various locations. Classes will be taped and used to critique not only how students handle the subjects, but also how they apply the reasoning and communication skills taught freshman year."

How can one not love the emphasis on practical writing and debating skills with multimodal communications?  We know how students are graduating even with English majors without these essential basic skills.  "Logic, advanced stats, Big Data, to formal reasoning" and econ -
sounds spot-on.  But no Great Books? Not so sure about this - what about the bigger picture
involving our role on earth, our struggles, morality, our humanness?  Here is how Nelson sees
what has happened to a "liberal arts education."

"The idea for Minerva grew out of Mr. Nelson's undergraduate experience. As a freshman at Penn's Wharton School, he took a course on the history of the university. 'I realized that what the universities are supposed to be is not what they are,' he says. 'That the concept of universities taking great raw material and teaching how it can have positive impact in the world is gone.' 

Undergraduates come in, take some random classes, settle on a major and 'oh yeah, you're going to pick up critical thinking in the process by accident.' By his senior year, Mr. Nelson was pushing for curriculum changes as chairman of a student committee on undergraduate education. As a 21-year-old, he designed Penn's still popular program of preceptorials, which are small, short-term and noncredit seminars offered 'for the sake
of learning.'

A Wharton bachelor's degree in economics took him to consulting at Dean & Company in Washington, D.C. 'My first six months, what did the consulting firm teach me? They didn't teach me the basics of how they do business. They taught me how to think. I didn't know how to check my work. I didn't think about order of magnitude. I didn't have habits of mind that a liberal arts education was supposed to have given me. And not only did I not have it, none of my other colleagues had it - - - - people who had graduated from Princeton and Harvard and Yale.'

The article continues with questions and comparisons at previous attempts for disrupting the higher education model, VC money flowing into higher ed, competition from the likes of Coursera and Udacity, the accreditation (reported as pending in certain fields ), and the like.

Will Minerva be a higher ed disruptor?

Related The Daily Riff:
Advice to Teens Going to College - (Humor) Video The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

College:  Another Institution to be Wary of?

Cost of College: The Pushback

Has the Future of College Moved On-line?

The Most Important Higher Education Study in Years: Trust Us Won't Cut it Anymore by Kevin Cary

College First. Passport Next.  Advice to Grads

What if College Had No Clothes?  

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