Minerva Project Aims to Create an Elite Online University

April 23, 2013

For many years, for-profit educational institutions and an elite education were considered mutually exclusive. Entrepreneur Ben Nelson is working to change this preconception through the Minerva Project, a for-profit university that aims to provide an elite-caliber education without the high price tag. According to Inside Higher Ed, the Minerva Project has an unconventional model in which students from around the globe live together and move between various dorm locations ranging from San Francisco to Mumbai, but take seminars exclusively online, guided by distinguished international faculty.

Nelson's idea, which has garnered both praise and skepticism, attracted $25 million in venture capital funding last year. The Minerva Project also recently appointed Stephen Kosslyn, former director of Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, as its founding dean. Kosslyn will supervise the development of the Minerva Academy's School of Arts & Science and is the only faculty member at Minerva, Inside Higher Ed noted. At present he is working avidly to recruit faculty members to head the school's colleges of natural science, computational science, arts and humanities, and social science.

Nelson explained to The New York Times that he wants his university to equally prioritize research and excellent teaching. To this end, this week he announced the creation of the Minerva Prize, a $500,000 award to an outstanding instructor who successfully inspires students to think differently about the world.

"We hope the Minerva Prize will be the Nobel Prize of teaching," he stated. "Universities want to reward teaching, but the industry gives no incentive, or negative incentives, for focusing on teaching. Every honor is all about the creation of knowledge." In contrast, Nelson stated to Inc.com, the Minerva Project aims to have "a dual purpose -- not only knowledge creation but also intellectual development."

He also believes that the university's unconventional model is beneficial because while it allows for a diverse group of faculty from around the world, it also holds each instructor accountable for learning outcomes. According to Inside Higher Ed, Minerva faculty members' compensation is directly proportional to how well students perform in class, and they will not have tenure.

Despite the energy, creativity, and worthwhile objectives driving the Minerva Project forward, Nelson admits that he is still in need of two elements: more funding, and official accreditation. Though the VC firm Benchmark gave Minerva $25 million, Nelson currently only has enough funding to see the Minerva Project through to 2015 -- up until the first day of class. He must therefore start fundraising aggressively in 2014. As for accreditation, Nelson plans to partner with an already-accredited institution in order to have accredited status when classes begin in fall of 2015.

Compiled by Kaitlin Louie


"Minerva Project Starts Prize to (Try to) Rival Nobel," inc.com, April 22, 2013, Leigh Buchanan

"The Minerva Moment?," insidehighered.com, April 5, 2013, Ry Rivard

"Yearly Prize of $500,000 Is Created For Faculty," nytimes.com, April 22, 2013, Tamar Lewin

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