Karen Hitchcock: The Minerva Project -Ben Nelson’s Vision for Higher Education

Apr 25, 2013

Ben Nelson, former CEO of Snapfish, an online photo service, is determined to stand higher education – at least part of it - on its head.  His goal is a simple one: provide large numbers of intellectually-gifted students with an education which will challenge them and prepare them to be the “thought leaders” of tomorrow.  The approach Mr. Nelson has laid out to do this “breaks the rules” in many ways, and has been variously described as daring and innovative by some, and ineffective, reckless  and over-reaching by others.

Nelson is the founder of the Minerva Project, a new for-profit university which, he feels, will rival – indeed, surpass -  the institutions of the Ivy League in their education of the very best students at a cost to the student of about half that of these elite universities.  Online courses will be the norm; hence, there will be no main campus.  However, students will spend blocks of time throughout their degree program at what Nelson terms “residential centers” in major cities around the world, benefiting from direct experience with different languages and cultures.

Students will be admitted to this new university based solely on intellectual ability and will already have mastered the basic knowledge in the various fields of study they intend to pursue, either through prior college-level courses or online instruction. At Minerva, education will then be able to focus on the utilization of such factual knowledge in ways to help the students develop their analytic abilities and become, in Nelson’s words, “brilliant thinkers.”  Classes will consist of small online seminars with highly-qualified faculty.  Nelson feels it is absolutely critical to the future of our country to have an educational alternative such as the Minerva Project which will expand in a major way the numbers of highly-qualified students able to access academically-challenging programs of excellence, and do it in an affordable and highly effective manner.

The response to this online, globally-focused program for intellectually-gifted students has been mixed. Its innovative approaches and commitment to having teachers of excellence interacting, albeit online, with highly talented and motivated students have attracted the likes of former Harvard President, Lawrence Summers,  to chair its Advisory Board;  former US Senator and former Head of the New School, Bob Kerrey, will also serve on the Board.  The founding Dean, Stephen Kosslyn, served most recently as Dean of Social Sciences at Harvard. Further, venture capitalists have, to date, invested some $25 million in the Project.   There are those, however, who remain extremely skeptical about a model which focuses so exclusively on the online delivery of educational programs.

Regardless of the wide-ranging opinions on the effectiveness of the proposed Minerva model, at the heart of Mr. Nelson’s vision is an acknowledgement of the need for excellence and constant innovation in teaching and learning. Indeed, the Minerva Academy, part of the not-for-profit arm of the corporation founding this new university, has recently made the exciting announcement of a new, national award: The Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education, an annual prize which will recognize extraordinary advancements in teaching excellence and impact and will carry with it an award of $500,000. The newly-appointed Governor of the Minerva Academy, Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg, has eloquently described this Prize as one which will do for teaching what the Nobel Prize has done for research and discovery; it will elevate the prestige of the profession and raise the public’s awareness of the importance of high quality and innovative teaching to our nation’s future. Nominations are now being accepted and the first Prize will be presented in May, 2014.

This new university plans to admit its first class in September, 2015 – an extremely aggressive target. And, while Ben Nelson’s goal of creating an elite, online university may well be audacious, it is certainly attracting attention – some quite positive, and some quite skeptical. Some educators feel that he has developed a model which can, through the creative use of technology, serve more of our intellectually-gifted students in academically challenging and effective ways; others are deeply concerned with any model which eliminates one-on-one contact between the student and the teacher and one which would, in their view, create real problems in the evaluation of achievement. However, the time, I feel, is right for such experimentation. The ever-increasing demand for higher education in the face of ongoing financial constraints will require creative solutions. The Minerva Project may well have the potential to be a cost- effective and high-quality alternative for providing expanded opportunities for our nation’s most gifted students. Indeed, let this be but one in a long list of innovations as we all seek to better serve our students and thus meet the needs of our nation.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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