Minerva Schools at KGI: Nurturing Critical Wisdom for the Sake of the World

By Tomoki Hotta
Vice Chancellor
Babel University Professional School of Translation (BUPST)

I’d like to introduce a university – developed in none other than Silicone Valley – that completely changes our stereotypes when it comes to universities.
https://www.minerva.kgi.edu/

BUPST both shares certain traits and has much to learn from this new university.

First, let’s look at Minerva University’s mission statement (note: all italicized print is from Minerva University’s website.)

The Minerva Mission Statement―7Guiding Principles

Being Unconventional
We are unique, standing apart from other universities and other ways of learning. We believe there is a better way and refuse to settle for the status quo. We challenge conventional thinking, anticipating needs and desires, and championing novel approaches. By delivering the unexpected — that which brings a sense of mystery, or a moment of delight — we encourage further discovery.
We never do things simply because others do, instead we develop different, more effective solutions.

Reading this mission statement, I’m reminded of a Ted Talk I introduced in a previous article on how a great leader inspires action:

Being Human
We are deeply curious and cosmopolitan. We embrace the energy and complexity of the world, seeking to understand the diverse cultures we live in. We build relationships through respectful, personal connections. By celebrating the power of different perspectives, we promote mutual understanding and shared ideas.
We eliminate barriers to human interaction, emphasizing meaningful contact.

Being Confident
We are bold and decisive, unwavering in our commitment and beliefs. We take informed risks and make prudent decisions, without fear of failure. We approach challenges directly, working through adversity and complexity. By acting with conviction, we are able to advance our progressive vision for the future.
We act with clear intent and strong judgment, yet understand that confidence does not mean hubris or arrogance.

Being Thoughtful
We continually analyze, evaluate, and examine, incorporating depth and dimension. We look for things others do not see, including details and information that add nuance and levels of interest beyond what is immediately evident. We are considered in our own views, initiating discussion and debate, and treating those that disagree with dignity and respect.
We never accept superficial thinking or lack of due diligence and expect others to engage with the same level of depth and scrutiny.

Being Selective
We are prestigious, exacting, and rigorous, attracting the finest talent in the world. We focus our time and attention on the people, institutions, and initiatives that are most important for our collective success. We carefully consider what we present to the world, producing high quality with clear intention.
We are not suitable for everyone, but neither are we elitist.

Being Authentic
We communicate openly and candidly, addressing people directly and conveying heartfelt emotion. We welcome honest dialogue, even about sensitive or controversial topics. We impart accurate information with genuine sincerity, building trust and establishing mutual respect.
We avoid anything artificial, false, or contrived; hyperbole breeds suspicion and erodes credibility.

Being Driven
We are ambitious, always pushing to transcend the commonplace. We look for opportunities to improve, refining our approach, and enhancing the outcomes for our students and the world. We work to reach apotheosis, the highest point of achievement. Only by constantly striving to excel will we realize our full potential.
We never settle for “good enough”; if we can’t accomplish excellence, we pursue a different route.

We learn a great deal from this uncharacteristic mission statement that explains why this new university exists.

How is Minerva different from other undergraduate programs?
The key differences that distinguish Minerva include:
• Rigorous curriculum based on the science of learning
• Accomplished faculty focused on student instruction
• Four years of global cultural immersion
• Small seminars with fewer than 20 students
• An advanced interactive learning environment
• Lifelong career support services
• Merit-based and need-blind admissions process
• Accessible and affordable with tuition $12,950/year

Minerva University is based out of San Francisco and opened in 2014. Despite being so new, over 11,000 applicants have applied from 98 different countries. With an acceptance rate of 2.8%, Minerva is extremely difficult university to enter. What’s more, some students reportedly have declined acceptance into prestigious schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Cambridge to enter Minerva University.

The selection process consists of first submitting basic documents required for any college application. Then applicants take a unique online test similar to an IQ test, submit their records of extracurricular activities and high school transcripts (in English), and finally undergo an online interview.

This online interview is quite distinct. It’s not only an oral interview, but applicants must also write and submit an essay while the interviewer monitors their work. Since applicants are not allowed to use notes or dictionaries, their genuine writing ability is put to the test.

With Internet and global campuses, Minerva University is likely the most progressive university in the San Francisco Bay Area; an area where forward-thinking schools are emerging one after another.

Minerva is a four-year university, where all students live in dorms and switch campuses located in seven cities throughout the world. The program is based on neuroscience, and all learning is active learning.

All students live together in the university’s dorms, but class lectures – which are comprised of 18 students – are completely online, with the professor participating from his or her location throughout the world. This way of thinking is the opposite of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the typical style for online courses. Since instructors are able to lecture from their resident research facilities, Minerva is able to save on travel costs and time and allow instructors to concentrate on their research activities.

Many feel that, since we live in an age where courses like MOOCs are already available for free, paying for those same types of courses doesn’t make sense. There’s a lot to be said for this argument.

What makes the interactive learning environment better than a traditional classroom?
Minerva’s Active Learning Forum platform uses the latest advances in information technology to provide an engaging class experience that is unmatched. Live, video-based seminars enhance student-to-professor and peer-to-peer interactions by ensuring that everyone is visibly engaged and actively participating.
The Active Learning Forum also facilitates numerous rapid mode changes, including moving from full group discussion to smaller breakout groups, one-on-one and team debates, collaborative document sharing and editing, as well as dynamic polling and real-time simulations. The platform’s asynchronous tools provide powerful capabilities for students and professors alike, by enabling deeper and more frequent data-rich feedback, schedule and assignment management, and searchable review of prior class footage.

The first students to enroll at Minerva in 2014 are scheduled to graduate in 2019. Some students aspire to start their own businesses, while others are being inundated with internship and employment offers from various companies.

Minerva uses cities for its campuses. It uses the latest research facilities, art facilities, libraries, etc. located in those cities, and works together with corporations, government organizations, NGOs, and other institutions to provide joint project internships.

What is included in the lifelong career services?
Minerva’s Professional Development Agency acts as a personal talent agency. In addition to unlimited consultation sessions, the team of experts provides networking, publicity, and entrepreneurial support. These coordinated services help raise the visibility of your achievements and propel your career forward.

Minerva has emerged at a time when, even in America which has an atmosphere full of forward thinking and innovation, students and people in the business world are frustrated with the rigidity of universities.

Looking at Minerva’s principles at its inception, Minerva founders were unable to find existing universities with true liberal arts programs. Minerva founders point out that universities have gradually degenerated from developing genuinely intellectual people to focusing on merely supplying knowledge.

When it comes to today’s ivy league schools, very high-income students find it easy to enter and are given respect. In reality, students from the high-income class -approximately 1% of the population – supposedly make up about 50% of the school body in ivy league schools.

Of course, tuition is outrageous. What’s more, especially top universities on the US East coast are built on a history of an educational society. This makes it hard for foreign exchange students to enter universities’ traditional inner circles, leaving them feeling isolated in everyday life.

What’s more, there are credible reports that in the near future the federal government will cut grants, which the majority of university students in the US currently receive.

As I research Minerva University, I realize that Minerva gets back to the heart of what education should look like.

Minerva University conducts lectures online. However, according to those at Minerva, the university isn’t just an online university that provides listen-only lectures remotely broadcasted to an unspecified mass of students. Why then does Minerva choose to use an online format for its classes if students are placed in a campus environment interacting with their peers?

According to those at Minerva, “We believe going online makes it possible to provide higher quality classes. In seminar-style classes with a small number of students, the instructor sees on his or her computer monitor each student’s expression and what they’re doing with their hands, making it possible to discern students’ enthusiasm and level of comprehension. The time each student speaks is also automatically measured, so the instructor can monitor the balance of student comments. In addition, participants can use automatic dictation for audio, enabling them to create texts of what’s being spoken. This makes it easier for instructors to provide feedback with greater ease and certainty.

Why are all classes small seminars?
Minerva classes focus on building skills and understanding — not mere information dissemination. Cognitive and behavioral research documents that students learn most effectively when actively engaged with the subject matter — a learning approach not that large lectures or other passive forms of teaching do not facilitate.
Minerva’s small class size, fewer than 20 students — coupled with the advanced Active Learning Forum technology, enables professors to provide expert instruction, direct personal interaction, and frequent feedback, simultaneously ensuring that every student is an active class participant.

Looking at Minerva’s online demo screen, you see how the professor can easily measure which students are talking and how much, or which students are picking up on keywords, etc. The computer screen uses algorithms to identify when particular students aren’t keeping up, and an alert pops up on the instructor’s screen.

Just because Minerva uses an online system for classes so students can learn more efficiently, that doesn’t mean Minerva makes light of connections with others or group work.

“Because we’ve incorporated a system where all students live in our dormitories, students are able to participate with their peers in group projects and club activities.”

Since Minerva doesn’t require large-scale facilities or lecture halls, it’s able to keep costs down. The cost, including living expenses, to attend is about $30,000 a year; about a quarter of the cost of ivy-league schools.

With annual tuition at $12,950 and dormitory fees of $10,000, Minerva isn’t cheap by any means. However, considering that prestigious US universities charge $40-60,000 a year for tuition, Minerva is comparatively a more conscientious setup. Minerva also provides ample amounts of scholarships. Minerva can keep its costs down and provide scholarships mostly because it doesn’t have campus and other facilities apart from its dormitories, so there’s no need to invest in capital.

How can Minerva offer such low tuition?
Minerva is able to uphold our commitment to affordable education because we only invest in the things needed to provide the best education possible; we don’t invest in expensive real estate, outdated infrastructure, collegiate sports, or unnecessary amenities that don’t directly support your educational experience. This is also why we do not offer faculty tenure; our expert faculty are here because they want to teach.

So why does Minerva have students live in dorms and switch campuses located in seven cities throughout the world? Minerva wants all students to live together in its residence halls to experience communal school life.

Which global cities are included in the four-year undergraduate program?
Minerva’s residence halls are located in seven major cosmopolitan cities around the world. Students spend their first full year in San Francisco, California in the United States, and subsequent years in up to six other cities: Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and Taipei.

Students spend their first year in San Francisco. It’s there that students take what’s considered in Japanese universities as general education courses. These courses are collectively called Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts (HC).

What makes the Minerva curriculum distinctive?
The curriculum was intentionally structured to teach both breadth and depth demanded by the constantly evolving world, emphasizing on four core skills — thinking critically, thinking creatively, communicating effectively, and interacting effectively. By exposing students to interdisciplinary subject matters and continuously reinforcing key habits of mind and foundational concepts, Minerva teaches a broad and adaptable set of skills and knowledge, applicable to any field. Depth of learning occurs in the major and concentration courses, and the self-directed Capstone project, where students focus on a specific area of expertise starting in their third year and continuing through their final year.

According to those at Minerva, at this point students don’t decide on their major. Instead, they want students to have time to choose their major without the constraints of past experience. Therefore, students first identify and revise 120 patterns of habits when viewing issues and learn the following four learning key concepts:
1. Formal analysis: statistical methods, logic, decision making, simulations, etc.
2. Complex systems: exploration of how people function together
3. Empirical Analysis: creating hypotheses, investigating, and proving hypotheses
4. Multimodal communications: investigation of various communication styles

After going through this process in their first year, students select their major in their second year. In their second and third year students live in Buenos Aires, Berlin, Bangalore, and Seoul for four months at a time. In their fourth year, students live in Istanbul and London. Each city has its own uniqueness and special story. Some are large cities, some have undergone repeated ups and downs, and some are in the midst of great change. After students complete their core learning and enter the years where they focus on their major, Minerva places them in cities corresponding to their studies in order to achieve the most dramatic impact.

At each city students reside in, they engage in project learning and internships with corporations and organizations, where they intensively learn the four learning concepts listed above.

In addition, Minerva doesn’t make acceptions on student admissions based on citizenship, gender, race, or affiliation. That’s why roughly 80% of students aren’t American citizens. Minerva has a large variety of students from over 40 different countries.

What’s more, since Minerva’s founding four years ago, it’s reportedly acquired 430,000 followers on Facebook and has more applicants than MIT.

So just how does Minerva create this state-of-the-art learning?

Minerva’ state-of-the-art technology and curriculum development are managed by Minerva’s for-profit corporation. This corporation receives venture capital and other investments, and in the future Minerva plans to create license agreements with other educational institutions to increase returns.

Minerva University is a non-profit wing of Minerva’s for-profit corporation, which means it’s able to use those licenses at no cost, enabling Minerva University to further lower tuition costs.

Founder Ben Nelson is known for being the CEO of the start-up Snapfish, an online photo storage and printing service. Nelson originally teamed with other members with backgrounds outside of education to pursue the ideal education. Since those members are unconstrained by stereotypes surrounding education, they can freely create and form new ideas.

We’ve got a lot to learn from Minerva’s example; and should be excited about what Minerva is going to do in the future.