Minerva – the travelling university

As various university models receive consideration in discussions and research papers, one perhaps somewhat quirky initiative is actually being rolled out in Silicon Valley: the Minerva Schools. The project is the brainchild of Ben Nelson, an American entrepreneur who led and later sold the photo-sharing website Snapfish. It is, according to some reports, the product of Nelson’s dislike of traditional universities. So he has come up with something different – a ‘university’ that teaches its students in unorthodox settings that take them to four different global locations in the course of their studies.

The first year, during which all students will be in San Francisco, sees participants focusing on what are described as ‘Cornerstone courses’:

‘Your first year academics comprise the Cornerstone courses. From the study of complex systems to investigations into the principles of rhetoric and modes of artistic expression, the Cornerstones provide an integrated survey of the core curriculum. These four courses are the common intellectual platform from which you and your classmates will develop the skills required for future success.’

After that the students spread across the world in several continents, finishing their final year in London or New York. By then they will, according to the plan, have mastered ‘critical thinking, creative problem solving and effective communication’, and they will then pull this together in the development of a ‘personal vision’.

The available information is somewhat patchy about how all this will work organisationally and indeed pedagogically, but there is enough here to have attracted 33 founding students, who are about to embark upon their courses.

Can this work? That is impossible to say. Is it a worthwhile contribution to the development of new higher education models? Still difficult to say. But it may be worth watching how those first students fare as they enter the programme – and indeed, whether they will still be there in three years.

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2 Comments on “Minerva – the travelling university”


  1. From what I read this seems to be about trying to build an exclusive (and expensive of course) “Ivy League” online/blended university. This will argue that it will provide the “best of both worlds”. And indeed it probably will, but at a huge price tag. You could argue that you could achieve 80% of what they intend to achieve at a small fraction of the cost, with large enrollment online classes and locally led tutorial groups. But there’s the rub. It would not be exclusive. The providers will argue that you will also work with highly capable peers and make useful connections. Perhaps, but the main value may be in what I think economists and evolutionary psychologists call “signalling”. It is like a very expensive watch – by displaying your exclusive watch or degree you are displaying to your prospective mate or business contact your fitness and means. This will hardly shake the world, educationally, but they might make some good money out of it. Good luck to them, but it is of very little relevance to me.

  2. V.H Says:

    It’s not that long ago that the Jesuits, NUI, TCD, Oxbridge and Heidelberg were providing just such an education. All that’s missing are aero and fencing clubs. But why doesn’t he just buy a cruise liner and ship in academic gods from existing uni’s to provide courses.
    All the same, why did Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue come to mind.


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