The Minerva Project, an airy-sounding venture in San Francisco aiming to create an elite university for the 21st century, just poached a top academic from Stanford University. The company made a splash last year for attracting $25 million in venture capital and vowing to transform global higher education. Now it’s going to need to raise more money, develop software, hire professors and recruit enough students to open its doors by fall 2015.
Except Minerva’s doors won’t open to anything resembling a traditional university: the for-profit startup expects top students will fly across the world to sit in front of computers. Professors could be located anywhere in the world. Now, Minerva will need to make good on its promise to attract some of the world's most qualified students based on an unproven idea that relies on unfinished software.
The company wants to be a “hybrid university.” Its students would gather in dorms in major cities across the world, and after spending time together in one city, move to another, but take online classes from Minerva professors on the other end of the screen.
Minerva’s founder, former Snapfish executive Ben Nelson, believes powerful software can teach students better than traditional classes. But he also believes students still want to go to a residential college. Minerva plans to charge about half as much as an Ivy League university.
To get there, he will need to raise millions before Minerva can begin teaching its first class. The company also needs to produce one-of-a-kind software good enough to compete with a traditional campus experience, use what Nelson calls “various loopholes” in the accreditation system to get accredited and attract talent to an unproven idea.
Minerva has been on the receiving end of excited press coverage and raised eyebrows since it attracted $25 million last April from Benchmark, the same venture capital firm that backed eBay and Instagram.
Minerva has, however, been thin on staff. That’s beginning to change. Talk to any one of the recently hired executives at Minerva and the goal is clear: design a world-changing university for gifted and ambitious students.
But, if they build it, who will come?
Jon Reider, the director of college counseling at the prestigious San Francisco University High School, said a Minerva representative came a while ago to see him. While he doesn’t remember the details, Reider said he’s not sure how students at his prep school will take to Minerva’s unconventional approach.
"My students prefer traditional classroom instruction and personal relationships with teachers,” Reider said in an email. “I have no idea how they would respond to this program. Time will tell, I assume."
The Minerva Project
Minerva v. MOOCs and Lectures
When Nelson started thinking about Minerva in 2010, online education had already taken off, with universities nationwide competing to offer online degree programs. But much of the growth of online education was in professional training and the big players weren’t always the colleges attracting top undergraduates. Now, leading universities from across the world are offering free online courses and seem to be moving rapidly to offer them to undergraduates for credit.
Nelson is not the least bit threatened by these massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
Instead, Nelson called MOOCs "manna from heaven” for Minerva. He said he never wanted Minerva to offer introductory classes to begin with. He expects Minerva students will be good enough to pick up basic things like Econ 101 on their own.
Indeed, he thinks it's "not O.K. to charge" for Econ 101. So Nelson plans for Minerva’s professors to only teach classes where students are required to debate one another or where the professors can closely track students' intellectual development using sophisticated software. Those things, he said, "can't be MOOCed and therefore can't be given away for free."
Nelson’s confidence in this direction is born in part of a disdain for lectures. Lectures, the staple of most undergraduate education, “are not proven to work,” he said.
Nelson said MOOCs are victims to the same flaws as lectures and therefore make "absolutely no sense."
Where, if not classrooms, will Minerva students learn? Well, first of all, in front of a computer. "We will not allow them to congregate" in typical classroom settings, Nelson said. The students will live together in residence halls, first in San Francisco and then in dorms Minerva plans to have in the world’s major commercial capitals. Minerva students will have hall advisors and faculty guides for education excursions, but no in-person classroom professors.
While MOOCs are basically supersized lectures offered to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of students, Minerva wants to use learning analytics to scale up Oxbridge-style tutorials to seminar-size online classes taught by professors who can work remotely from any location in the world.
"We are trying to deliver the world's highest-touch education experience," Nelson said. "And we believe that to deliver a truly high-touch delivery experience -- we believe that if you tell 20 students to gather in a room that will not happen."
Unlike MOOCs, which are based on recorded lectures, Minerva classes will be taught live online.
Minerva believes it can develop software to log students and professors' every move and not only track but encourage participation and learning. This, Nelson says, will avoid the limitation of the in-person lecture -- namely that whatever is said just "vanishes into thin air."
Students in the back of a real class are not very engaged, said Robin Goldberg, Minerva’s chief marketing officer. But Minerva students, who could be in front of a webcam with their keystrokes being logged, will be on their toes. “You can barely blink without everybody knowing it. You can’t get up to get a glass of water without everybody knowing it,” she said.
The faith in the power of the software versus the lecture is at the heart of the company.
The software? It’s not finished yet.
A university also needs faculty and students. Last month, Minerva lured Stephen Kosslyn away from his job as director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences.
Kosslyn, who started full-time at Minerva on April 1, will be the new university's founding dean. He will oversee the School of Arts & Science and its four colleges of natural science, social science, computational science and arts and humanities.
“I need to find distinguished academics who can head those, so if you can mention that in the article that would be great,” Kosslyn said.
Minerva also plans to have a business school. (Nelson went to Wharton.)
Those college leaders Kosslyn finds will, in turn, recruit faculty for each college.
Minerva faculty will work on three-year contracts, won’t get tenure and will be paid according to how well students do in class.
Since Minerva faculty can teach online from anywhere, Kosslyn said the university has some interesting recruiting opportunities not open to other institutions. Minerva will look to attract roving researchers who wouldn’t have to be in one place to teach a Minerva course. Faculty with spouses who can’t relocate and emeritus faculty who want to be involved with bright students are also targets for Minerva’s faculty recruitment effort.
There are also adventurous types, perhaps like Kosslyn, a cognitive scientist. He said he left Stanford because he wants to end his career doing his best work. "It seemed I could stay here and keep doing what I'm doing, or I could try something new," Kosslyn said in a telephone interview during one of his last weeks at Stanford.
Kosslyn said he is looking to use learning sciences to develop software that can closely monitor student performance and motivate students to work together.
But for now, Kosslyn is the sole faculty member at Minerva. The company’s website features a picture of another professor, though – the late Richard Feynman. (The physicist is no stranger to posthumous ad campaign appearances for Bay Area tech companies: Apple put him into its “Think Different” campaign.)
A Minerva spokeswoman said Feynman represents the university’s ideal professor. Feynman taught at the California Institute of Technology.
Minerva is searching for a special kind of student: a great mind with a global bent who is willing to forgo a chance to go to a traditional university.
“If you really want to spend four years in snowy hills, skiing, living in an enclosed castle away from civilization and playing football and going to frat parties, you should not be applying to Minerva," Nelson said.
For those who do apply, Kosslyn said the university will look at the standard measures – test scores, grade-point average – but also use psychometric tests to try to find students who are self-confident leaders, and intellectually and emotionally mature.
Rick Miller is perhaps the rare American college president who has lived through an attempt to build a college from scratch.
Miller is the founding president of the Massachusetts-based Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, a nontraditional engineering school that opened in fall 2002 using a half billion dollars in foundation funds. Miller said the university – which offers classes taught in-person by professors – attracts top engineering students.
Naturally, Nelson took a pilgrimage last year to visit Miller. Miller said Nelson was looking for partners to make courses available to students. Miller turned him down.
But Nelson also came looking for what Miller called “cool sauce.”
Nelson came back convinced he would do some things the Olin way. For instance Minerva, like Olin did, plans to use a small group of students to test out its offerings. That will happen at Minerva in 2014 – a year before it plans to admit its first full class – in order to calibrate its offerings.
“I wouldn’t like to be the first person to fly in the Wright Brothers airplane,” Miller said of Olin’s own dry run. “I would like to see them do a few trial runs first.”
Olin’s test run involved 30 student “partners.” Minerva’s will involve 15-20.
Nelson said he had the same idea before he met with Miller. But the conversation convinced Nelson a prototyping year was the way to go.
Minerva’s first full class in 2015 is expected to enroll between 350 and 500 first-year students.
They will be expected to spend that first year in San Francisco. Minerva’s dorms, which have yet to be built, will be owned by private developers partnering with the university. The developers will build the dorms, the university will provide a steady stream of customers.
After the year in California, students will be sent across the world to campuses in places like Mumbai, Shanghai and São Paulo.
Terry Cumes, Minerva's chief student officer, said that because of time zone differences, students will be broken up into online learning cohorts after their first year: Africa with Europe, Asia with Australia, North American with South America.
Cumes is tasked with finding general managers to handle student affairs in India, China, North America, South American and Europe. (Eventually Minerva will hire someone in Africa, he said.) Of the first class, he expects 100 students from the U.S., 100 students from China, 100 from India, 75 from Europe, 50 from Africa and 75 from South America.
Cumes said the prospect of being shuffled across the world appeals to students.
That’s something he said he learned firsthand. He recalled a conversation with students at a recent barbecue in Woodside, a town near San Francisco with a median household income of $222,986 a year.
"What gets a 16-year-old kid's eyes to light up is you tell him about living all around the world," he said.
Goldberg, Minerva's marketing office, said the university’s appeal is not just to urban youths. She said student curiosity is piqued "across the board,” including in students from rural and urban areas in 70 countries.
Of course, not everyone is ready for traveling the world, Cumes said. Only the adventurous and more mature are ready for Minerva.
But, if they so choose, the experience will create vast social networks for Minerva students and a global acumen. That, in turn, would appeal to companies, Cumes said. A key concern of any university these days is being able to prove students find gainful post-collegiate employment.
Wanted: Money and Accreditation
To open at all, Minerva is still looking for a pair of things: accreditation and cash.
Nelson said Minerva has only enough money to get it to 2015 – to the first day of class but not beyond the first day of class. So he plans to raise more money in late 2014. That will need to go pretty well. "We won't matriculate students unless we have the financial stability to make sure they graduate," he said.
Nelson said Benchmark gave Minerva $25 million with the understanding that it was making a long-term investment.
"We never talked about when we'll exit, how we'll exit, when we'll IPO, things like that," Nelson said.
Kevin Harvey, a general partner of Benchmark involved in the Minerva deal, was out of the office this week and unavailable to comment.
Minerva doesn’t have legacy costs, like a physical plant, to deal with. So, Nelson believes he can keep down tuition costs. On the other hand, Minerva may not have it easy if it tries to build an endowment because, of course, it has no alumni and it's not clear that alumni would be generous to a for-profit business.
Minerva also does not plan to accept federal financial aid money.
Nelson said taking federal financial aid encourages universities to adopt one of two business models: accept as many students as possible and "make sure Uncle Sam pays for them" or take fewer students and jack up the rates.
Plus, Nelson said "the costs of regulation are so high it cancels out much of the benefit, especially if you're keeping your tuition low to begin with." Besides, federal financial aid is only good for American students and Minerva expects the vast majority of its students to be from overseas.
How will lower-income Minerva students be able to pay?
Nelson has Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator and former president of the New School, leading a nonprofit arm to try to raise money for scholarships and research for the for-profit university. (Nelson said Minerva will be a "tier-one research university from scratch.”)
Kerrey’s higher education record is mixed, to say the least. He left the New School at the end of 2010 after criticism of his management by student and faculty groups. (Minerva also has another academic with a mixed record chairing its corporate advisory board: Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary and former president of Harvard University.)
Minerva also needs accreditation. Nelson said the university will be using one of the accreditation system’s "various loopholes" – partnering with an already-accredited institution -- so it can be accredited on day one. It is unclear from Nelson when or who Minerva plans to partner with.
Nelson said Minerva recently hired Teri Cannon, the former executive vice president at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, to deal with accrediting issues.
Because Minerva will lack a distinct physical space, the software will have to do a lot.
Jonathan Katzman, the company's chief product officer, is in charge of making that happen.
"The students are going to be living on the system for eight to 10 hours a day, if not more," Katzman said.
The company is testing its software with a few public institutions, which Minerva officials did not name.
Since the software will be such a big part of university life, it needs to be not only good but evocative.
"You're not going to see Grecian or Ionic columns just for the sake of having an Ionic column on the side of the page," Katzman said, "but we're thinking a lot about, 'What are the emotions we want to evoke in the experience?'"
Minerva was not yet ready to provide a picture of the software.