Behavior Expert Seizes Chance to Run an Ambitious Experiment in Higher Education

Minerva Project

Stephen M. Kosslyn
April 08, 2013

Many administrators at traditional colleges might hesitate to step up to lead a brand-new institution whose founders proclaim that it will be "a top-tier university" designed to provide "what an Ivy League education should be about," and a for-profit one at that.

But that does not seem to daunt Stephen M. Kosslyn, 64, founding dean of the Minerva Project, which plans to open in the fall of 2015.

In Mr. Kosslyn, the project has a leader with 30 years of experience as a professor of psychology and dean of social sciences at Harvard University, a pioneer in cognitive neuroscience who two years ago took his skills to the directorship of the highly regarded Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Why move from a prestigious private institution to an unproven, risky venture? "I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to start from scratch and create something new," says Mr. Kosslyn, speaking by phone from Minerva's offices, in San Francisco.

At existing universities, he says, "too many legacy systems" obstruct reforms. Among those systems are large lecture classes in which, research shows, a majority of students are in something close to a sleep state. At Minerva, he says, "we don't want the boring, talking-head thing."

Even massive open online courses, or MOOCs, all the rage, are "just an extension of the way things are already done," he says—experts handing down pearls of wisdom to scribbling students who rarely ask a question.

Minerva plans, instead, "a kind of academic boot camp," online and in the classroom, beginning with cornerstone courses that alert students to content in later courses while instilling core skills in negotiation, rhetoric, human motivation, learning, and memory.

Minerva will encourage students to rotate through designated housing in four of its seven base cities, only two of them in the United States. It will sponsor such extracurricular activities as tours of cities' cultural institutions as well as provide standard extracurricular offerings: student newspaper, clubs, sports.

Ben Nelson, Minerva's chief executive, who is a former president of Snapfish, an online service for hosting and printing photos, says he heard from many impressive candidates for the project's deanship. But he and fellow Minerva officials—among them Lawrence H. Summers, a president emeritus of Harvard and former U.S. secretary of the treasury, and Bob Kerrey, a former president of the New School and a past U.S. senator—selected Mr. Kosslyn because "he's pretty much out of central casting, if I sat down in a laboratory and created the perfect candidate."

Mr. Kosslyn hadn't been looking for a job until he met Mr. Nelson and realized that Minerva offered a culmination of his whole career in studying effective teaching-and-learning strategies, in particular those based on his developmental- and cognitive-psychology studies. "So I was absolutely ripe to make this change," he says.

He will begin by hiring leaders and faculty members for the four planned colleges of Minerva's School of Arts & Sciences, and setting curricula based on recent research on online, seminar-based instruction.

Faculty members will range from early to late career, and be paid at competitive rates, Minerva says. Their primary affiliation will be with Minerva while on a three-year contract, but they will be free to continue their research by using facilities at universities affiliated with Minerva, or alongside colleagues elsewhere. To facilitate that arrangement, Minerva will hold classes on Tuesdays through Thursdays.

The project has secured $25-million in venture capital. "We needed money to get things started, but then we'll have to have students, too," Mr. Kosslyn says. To be viable, Minerva will need to enroll about as many undergraduates as Ivy League universities do—in the range of 5,000 to 8,000. He hopes that much-lower tuition fees, and the lure of a novel, globe-hopping undergraduate degree, will encourage students to enroll.