Minerva Schools at KGI to Offer a Global Education

Partnering with the Keck Graduate Institute, a new undergraduate program known as the Minerva Schools at KGI will welcome its inaugural class this coming fall.

Students will not be arriving in Claremont, though. Rather than taking classes at one campus for four years, Minerva students will live in a new international location every semester after their first year in San Francisco, participating in seminar-style classes led by faculty members via video chat. The Minerva Schools is the product of the San Francisco-based Minerva Project, a startup founded in 2011 by CEO Ben Nelson that aims to explore new approaches to education. 

“This is the most exciting thing in higher education in the world,” KGI President Sheldon M. Schuster said. “They were really thinking about how to achieve the highest educational goals possible, how to translate the science of learning into an institution … What these folks have really given deep thought to is what is an educational model that requires and enables you as a student to really get the foundational concepts that you need."

Students at the Minerva Schools can graduate from either the School of Business or the School of Arts and Sciences, which offers majors such as economics; applied physics; computer science and artificial intelligence; and philosophy, ethics, and the law. Potential locations for the program include Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, London, Cape Town, Mumbai, Sydney, and Berlin. 

Diane Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former president of the American Psychological Association, will serve as dean of the College of Social Sciences, which is within the School of Arts and Sciences. James Sterling, the vice president for academic affairs at KGI, will serve as the director of Minerva Labs and interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences, also within the School of Arts and Sciences.

Halpern said that Minerva and the deans have been working very hard on the curriculum for the inaugural class. Each dean will teach one of the cornerstone classes, which are four interdisciplinary courses that focus on teaching students critical thinking skills as well as foundational concepts in the social sciences, natural sciences, computational sciences, and arts and humanities.

“It’s a complete liberal arts model,” Halpern said. “It really looks in many ways like Pomona's curriculum. You have to take courses across the arts and humanities and in computational sciences, and so it’s a very broad liberal arts. I think that’s the best kind of education for a future that’s going to be unlike anything we can imagine.”

Although the model is based on a traditional liberal arts school, the Minerva Schools will re-imagine the classroom experience.

“We agree that the student interaction and being with your peers and having that collegiate experience is very important, and we are just imagining it in a little bit different way,” Chief Marketing Officer Robin Goldberg said. “We envision the residential experience to be a combination of getting a chance to build those important social bonds and also using it as an opportunity to go out and experience the world.”

In March 2013, Minerva approached the Claremont Colleges hoping to find a home institution. Minerva wanted to be accredited as a university by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, but an institution cannot be accredited until it has its first graduating class, so the program needed an accredited institution with which it could partner.

After Pomona College declined to partner with Minerva, KGI agreed to become the home institution for the program in July 2013. 

“[Accreditation] is where the discussion began, but I have to say it’s going way beyond that," Schuster said. "We have a very extensive prenup for if and when we decide to split, we know how exactly. We’re not putting ourselves at financial risk. But at this stage, we’re actually really enjoying working together and the hope on both sides is, 'Well this is cool. Let’s see where it goes; let’s see how it works out together.'"

Schuster said that KGI does not receive any payments from Minerva except to cover the out-of-pocket expenses KGI incurs while working with Minerva. Schuster said that both sides would like to develop their academic relationships, and are currently discussing ways to let Minerva students use Honnold/Mudd Library and KGI's resources for summer research. 

Pomona President David Oxtoby said that only after serious consideration and discussion among faculty members and administrators did Pomona decline Minerva’s proposal in March 2013. Oxtoby said that while Minerva’s educational model, which focuses on discussion-based classes, was attractive, the proposal met some opposition from administrators and faculty members. 

“One was concern about this being a for-profit organization and what that might do in terms of standards of quality," Oxtoby said. "The second concern was the fact that the instructors, faculty have short-term contracts, three-year contracts. So it wasn’t completely clear how the faculty would be involved in really putting the curriculum together and so on."

In response to such concerns, Goldberg said that while the Minerva Project is a for-profit business, the Minerva Schools is nonprofit, just as KGI is. Schuster also said that the three-year contracts are not short.

“It’s an assertion that is unfounded that says tenure-track faculty are better than non-tenure-track faculty,” Schuster said. “There’s no evidence for it. It’s a nice assertion, mostly made by tenure-track faculty … And in the United States right now, two-thirds of all classes are taught by non-tenure-track faculty, so the trend is going very strongly in the direction of tenure becoming a real anachronism. We feel if you want faculty to be sharp, engaged, dedicated, hard-working, you have renewable contracts.”

The Minerva Project has recruited several distinguished figures in education, including Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard University president, as the Minerva Project's advisory board chairman, who stepped down in December 2013; Stephen M. Kosslyn, previously dean of social sciences at Harvard, as founding dean of the Minerva Schools; and Bob Kerrey, a former senator of Nebraska and former president of The New School in New York City, as executive chairman of the Minerva Institute, Minerva's fundraising arm. 

Goldberg said that the Minerva Schools received an overwhelming number of applications, although it has not yet released exact numbers. Goldberg believes that this was due to Minerva’s relatively low tuition, which is set at $10,000 annually. With room and board, the total cost of an academic year will be $28,850. However, according to the program's website, all fees for the inaugural class will be waived. 

Although the initial plan was for an inaugural class of 15-19 students, Minerva is considering opening up a second section.

“The challenge is, you know, in many institutions, space is limited," Goldberg said. "So you can only offer that to so many students; you can only let in a small number a year … So when we think about what we can do, we can help democratize [education] by making this incredible, small-seminar, really robust undergraduate education available to a broader audience.”

This article has been revised to reflect the fact that Lawrence H. Summers stopped working with Minerva Schools in December 2013.