MIT Dean Takes Leave to Start New University Without Lectures or Classrooms

February 01, 2016

Christine Ortiz is the dean for graduate education and a professor of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a conversation with The Chronicle, she discusses her ideas about building a new type of college from scratch.
Christine Ortiz is taking a leave from her prestigious post as a professor and dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start a radical, new nonprofit university that she says will have no majors, no lectures, and no classrooms.

Many details about the new university are still undetermined, she says, but the basic idea is to answer the question, What if you could start a university from scratch for today’s needs and with today’s technology?

Her venture is not the only effort to create a new kind of college — there’s the Minerva Project, created by a tech entrepreneur in San Francisco, and MOOC providers like Udacity, started by a former Stanford University professor.

But those are for-profit businesses. Ms. Ortiz says she plans to create a nonprofit institution so that "all of the revenue can be reinvested in the enterprise to serve the public."

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 The plan is to begin with a campus in the Boston area that she hopes will grow to about 10,000 students and 1,000 faculty members — about the size of MIT. And her long-term plan is to add more campuses in other cities as well.

That will take serious financial backing, and she says the fund raising has not yet begun. But she says that she has had an outpouring of support for the idea and that she has assembled a team to start the project, though she said she was not yet ready to say who was on it.

The Chronicle talked with Ms. Ortiz about what the new university might look like. The following transcript of that conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. What made you decide to leave your post as a professor and dean at MIT to start your own university?

A. I’ve been at MIT for 17 years, and it’s been amazing. And I’ve always been interested in curriculum and thinking about the future of the research university, and I did a lot of archival research on it. And I found in my research that many of the structures were really taken from hundreds of years ago. I think we’re at a time where we can think about the future, and moving forward how to reshape it.

Q. Can you give an example of a moment at MIT or elsewhere that made you say a radical, new approach is needed?

A. MIT has had many, many models. It’s very decentralized, and there’s tons of innovation going on locally. We have the Media Lab, and we have many different curricular experiments going on. Seeing those different models, and seeing what was able to be done locally, motivated me to think, What would it look like to create a new model that integrates many of the things that have been successful at MIT? And of course I’ve traveled to many universities around the world and thought about, What could we take from all these different experiments and models, and really scale it up?

Q. Can you paint a picture of what the new institution might be like?

A. Basically the idea is that we’ll have a core that’s project-based learning, but where students can have a really deep, integrative longer-term project rather than shorter projects. And then all of the knowledge acquisition would be moved virtually. So instead of projects' being at the periphery, to sort of flip it more toward the graduate-education model. And I think it would be much more inspirational for the students because they could come in and really work on projects from the get-go that they wanted to work on and that they were most passionate about, and they could tailor their knowledge base to the projects they want to work on.

Q. Will there be lectures?

A. Not on the ground. The fundamental idea is to put all knowledge acquisition virtually online. There’s a great quote by [the former MIT president Charles M. Vest] on the emergence of the metacurriculum, and he predicted it 10 or 15 years ago, that the virtually open curriculum metacurriculum would be emerging. And that’s what is happening. So we’re sort of betting that the evolution that is happening very rapidly, that we’re going to take advantage of that.

Q. So you’re betting that lectures will be online elsewhere, and your students can access them?

A. A lecture has been defined as 50 minutes or one and a half hours of a professor speaking. But what’s happening online is that now this is being modularized, and there’s active learning embedded into the whole system. As you see with MOOCs, they’re modularized. Every five or 10 minutes, there are chunks where there’s active learning and recall, and all these different mechanisms of learning embedded into the system. So our focus is how do we create the on-ground system that can take advantage of that?

Q. So if you’re not using classrooms for lectures, what kind of space do you think you’ll need for the campus? What will that look like?

A. What I’m thinking of is huge project spaces. Large centralized laboratories. Basically just large, large open spaces, as well as big centralized laboratories where no one really has their own individual laboratory. So it’s just one integrated giant laboratory. And that goes with the research model that there would be no departments; it would just be transdisciplinary.

Q. What kind of financial backing do you have, or how do you plan to raise the money to get started?

A. I’m not stepping down until July, and the plan is to start fund raising over the next year after I step down. I would say there’s a huge interest.

Q. Prestige is a very important factor in higher education. Do you worry that you’ll have trouble attracting top scholars and academics because it’s so new and untested?

A. There are so many talented doctoral students and postdocs that are unable to secure jobs in academia. I can name like 100 right now … but there are not just enough jobs at prestigious university. So I know there is a plethora and a pool out there of potential faculty and faculty who would want to be part of a really innovative model and want to be part of a transdisciplinary community. And I’ve gotten hundreds of responses from potential students already saying, When can I apply?

Q. What do you tell them? What kind of timeline are you thinking?

A. Stay tuned. We’re going to work as hard and as fast as possible to get it off the ground. I hope a few years, maybe even less.

Q. What about tenure? Will your university have that?

A. My thinking at this point is very much moving away from tenure. I’m going to really investigate alternative models, and really there are a number of alternative models that are being used. At this point, tenure seems like a great mismatch with the system that we’re thinking about.

Q. Why you? How are you the person to bring this big idea into existence?

A. It’s not just me — there is a founding team. And I think that I’m just really passionate about the students. I hope that I can convene a team that could really move forward with thinking of the new model. I see myself as providing an overall skeleton for the vision.

Q. Do you have a name for it?

A. We’re throwing around a few names, but we’re not willing to say yet.

Q. Will it have the word university in it?

A. Unclear at this time.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page,; or try him by email at

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