Blog Post

Will Minerva U Really Replace Harvard As the #1 University?

There's lots wrong with some of the way Ben Nelson's ideas for Minerva University are framed in this interview in the Wall Street Journal: I, for one, am bored with the magic VC idea that corporate America can recreate the overpriced university (with tenured faculty as the straw men designed to attract naive VC's to come up with cheaper alternatives with little or no evidence of a sound business or intellectual plan).   Example: tenured faculty are NOT the highest paid members of a university: football and basketball coaches and senior administrators are, and so forth.   And the reasons for the high cost of education range widely, from withdrawal of state funding to the escalating wars, at elite private universities, for the comforts and commodities and amenities necessary to attract the tuition-paying global 1%.   Plus the end of so much government funding and corporate research funding that paid for the expensive research facilities that now are paid for by tuition.   And on and on.  Blaming tenured faculty is ludicrous.  Bad logic, bad data, but an easy attention-getting swipe that gets nods from those not thinking very much.


Still, with all that said, much of this re-imagining of the university is very interesting.


Ben Nelson  advocates , an alternative, global, learn by doing, elite "university without walls"--not an online university, but a highly selective experience where about 150 students start out together in a major city such as San Francisco and take advantage of all that city offers, even as they are guided through a range of educational challenges that require not just rote memorization but application of their learning.  For the basics, they learn what they need to online, and they have tutors and mentors from all over.  No tenured profs, true enough.  But also no basketball coaches or even basketball.  Libraries are the great public libraries.  And the scene keeps changing, San Francisco one semester, Sao Paolo the next.  


The aim is not mass education, not MOOCs, and not US universities building expensive new campuses in rich 3rd world countries . . . . rather, it's an elite new way of re-imagining the best training for the world we live in now.  It's ludicrous to think a student in Nelson's Minverva University will pay bargain basement tuition.  Like MOOC's, Minerva is being sold to VC's ad a cheaper alternative to the problem of the expanding cost of higher education.  I predict this will cost pretty much what Harvard does in the end. The profs they want to hire--whether top scientists or top business people or top philosophers--don't come cheap.  This isn't about "adjuncting" or ripping off existing faculty but a whole new model of interactive teaching. . .   But Nelson's idea is this will be better than Harvard, and better than his own undergrad training at Wharton School of Business at Penn.   Not a cost saving, but a better way of training the elite for our world.


I think there are things to think about here, and not just for the elite.   I dislike so many of the arguments here but I do think we have to rethink education from the ground up.  True innovation.  I'm not against this form or re-imagining.  I don't know if Minerva is the answer but I like having an alternative to the Harvard we've inherited.


I've been reading a lot about Charles William Eliot, lately, the fifty-year Harvard president (1869-1909 as I recall) who transformed just about everything about Harvard.   He took a university still rooted in the Puritan tradition of pre-ministerial classical training and transformed it into a scientifically-standardized institution designed to enhance technology training and to make manufacturing more American-based.  In other words, his was the envisioning of the Industrial Age university, rooted in science and capitalism.   Eliot's rich folks lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and he believed modernizing higher ed was the best route to prosperity, would make the US competitive with Europe. He, like his correspondent Frederick Winslow Taylor, hated unions. That is the history we've inherited. I wouldn't mind rethinking universities in positive, imaginative, constructive ways.


I'm not sure Ben Nelson's is the way . . . but it is a fascinating alternative and alternatives help us to reimagine a university that was designed for an age in which we no longer live.  It took roughly fifty years to redesign the Puritan university into the modern one.  It will take fifty years to redesign the Industrial Age university for the digital age---but we need to.  We must.  . (But why keep the semester? Think bigger, Ben!)


Here's the interview.  What do you think?



Although I agree with Cathy that higher education would benefit from lots of rethinking, Nelson's just ain't the way to go.  Here's just three elements of the plan and whey they're totally screwed up:

1) Rely on part-time underpaid faculty to increase the profit margin (not that the tenured faculty, as Cathy points out, is the true source of financial stress on the University).  I suppose, however, that these faculty would need to be trained in the doctoral programs offered by those non-profits that Nelson means to render irrelevant.

2) Do an end run around Title VI to save money!!!!  Just for those of you who don't know, this follows the logic of the Supreme Court that just scuttled the Voting Rights Act: "TITLE VI OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 PROHIBITS DISCRIMINATION BASED ON RACE, COLOR OR NATIONAL ORIGIN IN PROGRAMS OR ACTIVITIES WHICH RECEIVE FEDERAL FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE" (  So let's found a university whose premise is to discriminate openly for profit.

3) Abandon the physical plant, but have the students use the public library (if they choose to read "great books" at all) without contributing to the city government's and public library's already financially pummelled infrastructure (the corporation profiting on the back of the public).  While the San Francisco Public Library might have just pulled off an 8% budget increase, we know this ain't so elsewhere.  Maybe Nelson's students could rely, say, on the Detroit Public Library.




Thanks so much, Tim, for this wise hitting of the "pause" button.   Everything you say is absolutely correct and requires us to reject Ben Nelson's proposal.  I wrote my blog in Nassau, before a flight, and rushed right past a lot of the things I found offensive and was feeling inspired by one idea he had that I've been playing with for a long time.   But you were wise to say, hey! wait! that's not what we want!  about so many other parts.


This is a good reason not to write blog posts in airports on ways to planes . . .     However, I'm now in yet another airport, on the way to yet another plane, so let me make another flight of fancy (bad pun) about what the Ben Nelson inspired in me . . .



In this week's Economist I read that the taxpayers in California pay 47K a year per inmate on prisons, about the same as it takes to go to Stanford for a year.  So I was thinking, a la Ben Nelson, what we---the we meaning people of good mind and heart who are dedicated to education reform and to social justice---with 47K a year, and thinking that, if one took Nelson's model of a new elite education and extended it to those whom our educational system has failed, we might actually be on to something.


Here's some thoughts (and since this HASTAC site ate my longer version of this and since I have a plane to catch this is far sketchier than it should be):    We need an alternative to just about every current kind of education but for different reasons in each case.   (1) public but traditional education needs more public funding AND radical reform---it is insane that the median GPA of a student entering UCI this year is 4.1 on a 4.0 scale:  that is not a society I want, where only the academically gifted 1% can go to state universities;  (2) private education needs to cost less or it will only be for the Global 1% of the wealthy and I don't want that---and I want radical reform even of education for that elite;  (3) for-profit vocational training is increasingly about corporate shareholders not vocational students who we have terribly abandoned, K-22;  (4) MOOCs have so many problems yet to be resolved; (5) community colleges are way overcroweded (450,000 on the waiting list in California alone for community colleges) and also need to be more flexible.


So, I was thinking just of the high school drop out student who now, statistically, is likely to live below the poverty line and is most likely to end up in prison.   47K could go a long way to a fabulous education that is for that student for whom traditional education is meaningless, irrelevant, culturally out of reach, or cognitively challenging.    Living in peer-groups in a city, learning by doing, partnering with local institutions---all of which recieve not only funding for the partnership but credit as educators of society.    Hiring recent graduates as peer-mentors while still having full-time, full-benefit teachers leading the way and modeling professionalism and even research skills, including those that can be used to solve problems of the community in which the course is being held . . .and then moving to another city where a new group is also being formed, so the peers change, the communties change, the peers and teachers change, while still providing good, secure teaching opportunities and diverse and relevant and engaged learning opportunities (and, no, I don't just mean technical training:   all the digital literacies plus the human and social learning in communities and on and on).


I am fascinated by what Ben Nelson wants to retain in his radical innovations:  such as a centrally funded model of support from VC's with a traditional form of repayment to those VC's rather than community-sharing and community-profit-sharing models where those public libraries are not only resources but funded co-partners in an educational endeavor for the good of individuals and of society.    I am fascinated by wanting to retain intellectually dubioius and historically vestigial features of academic bureaucracy like "semesters":   I mean, really, is there any reason why "content" must be taught in 14-17 week chunks?   Sometimes learning a subject takes three weeks, sometimes three years.   Seat Time is one of those legacies from Charles Eliot and the standardizaiton of time, learning, obedience as part of Taylorized industrial age technologizing of early 20th century educational practices.       We never worry that Stanford is on quarters or other schools on trimesters or 4-1-4 plans . . .     Why even keep to an in-university semester scheme except for the bureaucratization of credentialing and grading and standardized assessment?


In other words, I like the end of the facility as the heart of the university and like the idea of shifting and diverse peer-communities and real engagement in the world.   But "the world" needs support and the teachers have to have the stability of secure employment in order to model, for these students, the (duh) benefits of secure employment.   And the community that gives must be given to.   Period.  


So, I'm off to another flight and I'm sure this has as many quick and scrappy observations as my last airport blog but that's good.  It gets us thinking about what we value and what we do not, what we want to hold on to that we've inherited from Eliot and Taylor and what we need to and indeed can remake for the next 100 years.  


Thanks so much for stopping me in my tracks to be able to get rid of the silly parts of Ben Nelson's idea so we can soar with some other parts.   I'd love this debate to continue.   I would love US to be able to come up with ideas that the Wall Street Journal touts and champions  . . .     Thanks for the conversation and engagement, Tim, as always!


Hello Prof Davison,

I have made comment on an earier blog of yours in which you discusss the complexity of HE reform, indicating that I have in deveopment a reform model that stands to addess the whole HE circumstance (

I write here again, since the model I am developing speaks directly to VC models for reform, including Minerva.

You and Timothy Murray voice concerns about Minerva: 1) further exploitation of academics; 2) the free use of public libraries; 3) elitism; 4) conformity to tradition; 5) inapproriate allocation of public funds (e.g., $47k/year for prisoners)...

The professional model I have in mind is far more radical than the one devised by Ben Nelson and aviods the problems that you, Timothy and others have identifed with the VC encroachment.

For two reasons relevant to our immediate disscussion it is interesting that Nelson speaks of using the San Francisco Public Library as a resource for Minerva.

The first interest is with Timothy's complaint that Minerva intends to use this public resource without contribution to the public coffers that support the SF Public Libraries.  I am not sure that this is true, given that Minerva would still be rquired to pay income and coproate tax, but the issue is moot under my model.  Like Minerva the professional model I am developing would not only use the existing public libraries, but those at public universities as well.  In fact, at least in Canada, any member of the community can use university and public library resources - not only students and institutional employees.

University libraries are a public interest, publically funded, as are the SF Public Libraries.  In fact all facilities and services of public higher education institutons are a publically funded interest and so ultimately owned by the public - just turn off the public money taps and see what haappens to these institutons and their libraries...that were built and are maintained by public funds.

If the professional model I have in mind were endorsed by the state - as it would have to be in order to form a proper social contract for higher education - then these public assets would be put at the disposal of the new profession of academics.  The difference between Minerva and the professional model is that the latter is not a VC, for-profit entity, but a formal profession of academics offering their services in the city of San Francisco, under the protection and direction of a professional social contract and independently of institutional employment. 

The second is that the largest college in California, the City College of San Francisco, has been isssued a SHOW CAUSE that will see its accreditation revoked a little less than ayar from now, effectively putting nearly 90,000 students and 1800 faculy out on the streets of San Francisco.  Neither the students nor the faculty will find a place at Minerva, and as Cathy indicates this is only a portion of those students who are denied access to higher education in California.

I find it baffling that merely because CCSF closes its doors, students and faculty - the only essential parties to higher education - will be wondering the streets of San Francisco without the opportunity to engage in higher education activity that is mutually beneficial.  The professional model eliminates institutions (like CCSF) but it does not leave students and academics wondering the streets.  Instead, it offers a much cheaper model for the provision of higher education than the instiutional one we now suffer, with full use of existing community infrastructure, no exploitation of academics (or students) and improvement in the academic-student relationship.

I have also indicated elsewhere on HASTAC ( that the professional model is just what is needed to solve the "recognition" problem faced by badges and provide higher education to regions in development or recovery (e.g., the BRIC)  - all without the need for online education.

I ask that you consider this model and offer your analysis (see my proflie website link).




Hi Shawn,  I read your previous badge blog with interest and thought I had written and suggested that you engage with Sheryl Grant, Dan Hickey and David Gibson in the energetic badging discussion happening as a result of their research on   But I see that my comment is not there.  Either I thought it but didn't record it or i made a user error uploadiit or the problem that was plaguing me yesterday (I lost two comments to the previous post) was happening then.   We are in the process of rebuilding the site and there are some creeks and groans . . . on the other hand, we give this site quite a workout and, since we charge no dues, we are lucky to have developed one so complex for so little...  


In any case, I do hope you get involved in the badges debate and see what other experts say.  It could be a good conversation, I think.   No one at MacArthur is saying that the "learning happens everywhere" is new.   Only that, because so much happens on line now, and because what happens on line can easily be aggregated and tracked, and because there is a mismatch between so much of the traditional curriculum and the skills needed in the world, we are at a moment where economics, interest, learning, new modes of credentialing, social need, and new technologies are all coalescing at the right time to make a new form of assessment also be a new form of certification or credentialing.  To me, the real excitement of that comes from those whom the system has failed but who have much to offer to society---just not as assessed by traditional metrics, disciplines, and institutions.   Badging might, if we can get it right, offer that alternative method.


I have been to your website and I appreciate the thinking very much.  What I don't quite get is the actual mechanics of the system you offer as an alternative.  Is there a place I can go to find that spelled out?  If not, I invite you to spell it out in more practical terms and detail here.  All the best with your endeavors, Shawn.  Thanks for taking the time to write.  (Now, I'll hold my breath and hope this comment sticks!)


Hi Cathy,

Thank you for the reply and interest.  I have recently written a piece, "A New Tender for the HIgher Education Social Contract," that delves into the actual mechanics and advantages of the model.  Also, though it is a over a year old now and in revision, there is a, "PSA Prospectus," available on the website (not the blog) under the "Further Readings" tab that offers greater mechanical detail.

I am an amateur reformer of HE - and so expertise from various fields other than philosophy is requied to polish the mechanics.  I am an amateur activist in HE - and so I have only begun to touch on strategy for implementation or intergration with movements like Badges - though I am now working on a piece that shows how the professional model can be used by the Badge Movement to address the issue of recognition.

At the same time I am confident that HE can be provided on the professional model in common use by society for the provision of other valued and personal services such as legal representation and counsel, medical care and engineering.  Questions of the approriateness or preference for this alternative over the existing model of institutions (universities and colleges), public funding and union representation are ones with which I contnue to struggle.  That said, I believe it to be an improvement on a number of metrics: access; quality; working conditions; total cost; and others.

Thank you for the suggested contacts.  I have spoken to Hickey, and will try Grant and Gibson as well.

Take care.