Online Education Startup Minerva Launches Non-profit to Reimagine 21st-Century Research Universities

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) —

The Minerva Project, an education startup self-described as “the first elite American university launched in a century,” has $25 million in venture funding and advisors including former Harvard president Larry Summers.

From their website:

Minerva is assembling an exceptional team dedicated to providing a uniquely rigorous and challenging education to the brightest students in the world.

  • Minerva is a mission-driven organization where every individual employee is expected to go to extraordinary measures to ensure that we achieve our goal of improving the world through the success of our students.
  • Minerva expects and creates structures to encourage long-term commitments to the company. We are building an institution that will lead for centuries and all Minerva employees must keep that long term perspective in mind.
  • Minerva is accomplishing things that have not been done before. This is not the environment for those who enjoy well-trodden paths.
  • We’re not building courseware, we’re redefining the university. This is a huge goal, and requires hugely talented people to help get us there.

This is all fairly straightforward startup company “We are changing the world” mumbo-jumbo: This is the most amazing mission ever, our employees will the best, most talented, most focused, hardest-working anywhere, our students will be top-notch, incredible, and we are doing something that has never been done before — we are reinventing how people ______. [But not until Fall 2015, I might note – about 2.5 years from now.]

Nevertheless, Minerva is squarely in the education/tech space, which we’re interested in, so they’re undoubtedly worth keeping an eye on, along with their peers, Coursera and Udacity.

So, it was very interesting when the for-profit Minerva recently announced that it is creating a non-profit arm called the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, which will be led by the well-respected former Senator and former New School president Bob Kerrey. Some quotes from their press release:

“As we redefine every aspect of the traditional tier 1 research university, we are also re-envisioning the university business model to create a new way of operating that is more effective and efficient,” said Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva Project. “The Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship will play an important role in attracting and directing financial support towards cutting-edge faculty research and academic programs for the world’s most brilliant students, which will positively shape our collective future. We are excited to have Bob Kerrey join us in a more formal capacity to lead this critical effort.”

“I believe the Minerva Project is the single most important innovation in higher education in my lifetime,” said Bob Kerrey. “I am thrilled to be joining this groundbreaking effort, and I look forward to furthering the vision of the Minerva Project as our work at the Institute begins. Minerva is unique in many ways. Minerva will not rely on the federal government for assistance, will enroll only high achieving and motivated students from around the world, will break the cycle of rising higher education costs, will place the highest priority on guaranteeing that every faculty member is capable of creating a life-changing classroom experience for the student, and will work from day one of enrollment to increase the post-graduate opportunities for our students.”

The institute appears to be a think tank of sorts, set up to conduct research about education in the future — Topics will probably include business models, recruitment issues, digital access, and so forth.

There are many unanswered questions about Minerva, not the least of which is, where will the students and teachers come from, exactly? For professors, Minerva will essentially have to poach those who presumably have Ph.D.’s or other advanced degrees and tempt them not to take a faculty position at Harvard, Stanford, University of California, and 200 other great schools with established brands, resources, and useful and interesting colleagues. For students, they will have to face a trade-off of, essentially, cost-of-education vs. access-to-knowledge vs. brand-recognition-of-university-education. These challenges are huge.

There’s also some obvious (new) questions about the new Minerva Institute, such as: Where will it be based? Where will their researchers come from, and will they have traditional or non-traditional backgrounds or both? How will they differentiate their research from traditional think tanks like RAND and Brookings? Will the Institute have a startup ethos and largely ignore education “elites” in Washington, DC and elsewhere, or will they try to work with them?

For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Mark Drapeau, Ph.D. is the Director of Innovative Engagement for Public Sector at Microsoft, based in Washington, DC.

Photo credits: of graduation (Andrew Schwegler), of Bob Kerrey (Esther Dyson)

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