Monday, August 12, 2013
Wall Street Journal Weekend Interview: The Man Who Would Overthrow Harvard:
Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?
'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." ...
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. ...
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.
But 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. ... 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 São Paulo, London or Singapore—details to come. Professors get flexible, short-term contracts, but no tenure. Minerva is for-profit.
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.
Mr. Nelson wants to bring this technological disruption to the top end of the educational food chain, and at first look Minerva's sticker price stands out. Freed of the costs of athletics, the band and other pricey campus amenities, a degree will cost less than half the average top-end private education, which is now over $50,000 a year with room and board.
His larger conceit, inspired or outlandish, is to junk centuries of tradition and press the reset button on the university experience. Mr. Nelson offers a fully-formed educational philosophy with a practiced salesman's confidence. At Minerva, introductory courses are out. For Econ or Psych 101, buy some books or sign up for one of the MOOCs—as in massive open online course—on the Web....
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.