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Interview with Ben Nelson
Transcript of Sergey Kuznetsov's talk with the Minerva founder and CEO.
3 October 2019
SK: And my first question to you is why you decided to do a new kind of university, a university of a new kind.

BN: Well, universities, we believe, are about the most important institutions in the world — after all, those people who graduate from universities run governments, they run businesses, they run cultural institutions, they are journalists, they are lawyers, they're doctors, they are people who impact the lives of others on this planet. So we at first believe that universities are extraordinarily important, but also we believe that universities do a pretty bad job. And this isn't a mystery, you know, it's not really much of a controversial point of view if you think about it. Universities basically disseminate information, and information can be disseminated on the Internet, can be disseminated far more cost-effectively, etc. And in general, universities know that they're supposed to be doing other things, they say things like that they teach their students how to think critically and solve problems and be global and communicate effectively. But when you look at their curricula, they don't actually do any of those things. So they hope that students pick up those skills by accident while they go through subject matter, but the reality is that if you want to teach somebody something, you have to focus on those things. And we've created not only a curriculum around doing that, but an entire institution that is focused on that perspective with the goal of influencing the rest of higher education all over the world.

SK: Great. Well, I think the same, and what do you change in the standard scheme of university? What makes Minerva such a pioneer project?

BN: There are four things that are quite different. Who we teach, what we teach, how we teach and where we teach. Very briefly, the who we teach is we have an international, very socioeconomically diverse student body, which is very rare for a highly selective university in any country. Most universities will have 85 to 95% of their students come from a particular country, with some international students.

We have 85% of our students come from outside of the United States, and they have a much broader socio-economic distribution. At the same time, we don't have a concept of spots. Every year we admit those students who are qualified based on merit and merit alone. So our diversity is not because we plan it, but because we just don't discriminate. And that's one of our approaches.
The what we teach we talked very briefly about, which is we actually teach our students various systems of thinking: formal, empirical, complex and rhetorical, which are related to the ideas of critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communications and effective interactions. And those four broad capacities are then scattered throughout the entire curriculum over all four years.
The third is how we teach. We teach in a very participatory applied way, so class at Minerva is about students applying what they learn to real world examples. They do so in small seminars of less than 20 students, and they do it all through live video, which means that they don't actually get together in a classroom, a physical classroom, for class, they do it synchronously but on the Internet.
And that enables us to rethink where they learn, which is rather than having to create a campus where students basically stay four years removed from society, instead our students live in the heart of cities, they all live together, so it's a residential community, but then they take advantage of the city around them for the resources that they need. And they spend those four years living in seven different cities around the world, travelling together as a cohort.

SK: Is it not very hard for a student to change 7 cities?

BN: Yes, it's very hard, and in fact the curriculum at Minerva is also very hard. Think of Minerva as a university for the very very best students in the world, that eventually are going to be asked to make decisions that'll affect the lives of millions of other people. You really don't want people in that position that say "Oh, I have to travel every four months, that's too hard", right? You need people who are resilient, who can deal with these types of issues. And so, whereas many of the things that we do — the curriculum, the pedagogical methodologies, the feedback that we provide our students, even though many of those things are very useful and should be broadly applicable to every university, there are a lot of things that we do at Minerva, our own institution, that really don't make sense for most institutions to do, which is perhaps the level of difficulty, the pressure, the global travel. For some students it's ideal, for most students it's too much.

SK: But for instance, your curricula may be used without your whole scheme with 7 cities, etc. If some university would like to do it just on their campus, it's possible as well.

BN: Correct, that's right. We've built our entire educational system such that it can be used within existing universities. And the student experience that surrounds it, whereas the Minerva experience may be ideal, you could create all sorts of other experiences that could be also wonderful for students based on the resources that the university has.

SK: I asked about it because we have the same problem, we do a middle school of a blended learning model, where the kids spend three weeks together in France and 2 months have e-learning from their homes, and so for 3 trimesters. But at the same time, we have our own curricula, and we are going to expand this curricula to other schools as well, it's not necessary to have a blended learning model. And so it's very interesting to hear about your experience in this field. And making a step back I would like to ask you when you're talking about the future of your students, the students who you choose with so selectively, what do you think you prepare them for in the future?

BN: So, indeed, we want to enable our students not only to have the tools, but to be in positions in which they can make very important decisions of consequence. Decisions of consequence mean decisions that are… an output, a by-product of those decisions will impact the lives of others more than they will impact the lives of those students. And so, when you think about those types of decisions and the type of decision-making that you need to do for them, you really have to think 2-3-4 steps ahead. And that's, unfortunately, something that rarely happens out of the current educational system.

SK: Right, thank you. The next question is. You've got a technology background from Silicon valley, all that stuff. You know how most of educational startups today try to be very technological. They're very scalable, they have a lot of students per one instructor, and Minerva is absolutely another kind of education like ours is. And so my question is, how you use technology at Minerva and why you didn't do a standard decision "let's make a new electronic university for all the world".

BN: Right. Well, I think the easiest way to think about it is — if you generally think of any transformative technology, it is rarely about how do you do what you do without technology slightly better. Those technologies exist, but they're rather unimaginative, they don't last the test of time. What true technological breakthrough does is think, first and foremost, about the problem that you're trying to solve; think then about the ideal solution. Then understand why is it that without technology that ideal solution doesn't exist. And then you build the technology that enables that. And that's really what Minerva is all about. Minerva started with a curricular approach. And then thought about how do you design an entire leaning environment to support that curriculum that you simply cannot do offline. And that's what we've built.

SK: Great. And the first graduation will be next week, can you share your emotions?

BN: Yes, absolutely. Our first class graduates next week. For us, that milestone meant that we needed to prove two things. The first is that a brand new institution can be taken seriously by employers, by graduate schools, etc, along with the very best other universities in the world. And we have proven that without any question. Our graduate school acceptance rates and placements, the actual quality of the schools that our students are going to are, as far as I can tell, the best in the country. The types of job opportunities that our students are getting are with employers in a variety of different fields and a variety of different positions, etc. And so, we've shown that a Minerva degree is, from day one, from the very first graduating class, as good as any of the best degrees in the world. But the second thing we had to prove was actually even more important, which was that Minerva graduates aren't as good as the graduates of a traditional Ivy League university, they're better. Because if they're as good, what's the point of us doing what we're doing, right?

SK: And how do you estimate what means "better"?

BN: I think there are two ways of looking at it. One is you can look at the distribution of graduate school outcomes for our students and you can see that our students are at the very high end of the graduate school placements. We have students accepted into many Ivy League universities, to Chicago, Cambridge, etc. And that was the majority of students who went and looked for PhD opportunities and things of that nature. And so, that is a very strong sign. The second sign is when you look at the quality of corporate job outcomes for our students, many of whom are getting the types of jobs at first that a student would get 3-4-5 years after they graduate from a traditional university. We are very very very happy with what our students have been able to accomplish.

SK: Great. All of us know that the admission fee for Ivy League universities is extremely high for the most of population of at least world, but maybe even United States. You have smaller tuition fees, as I know. Do you have some scholarships as well for the most talented students? Because I think in the start, it's not so easy to find that opportunity.

BN: Yes. There four responsible parties for paying the cost of our education. There's the institution, that I think bears the greatest amount of responsibility, and the job of the institution is to keep the cost of education as low as humanly possible. We charge for tuition fee, room and board, about 30 000 dollars a year. And tuition and fees are only about 15 000 dollars a year, the rest of it is the cost of being alive, you can't do anything about that. And so, when you compare these 15 000 dollars of tuition and fees to the 50-55 thousand that now the highly selective private universities and colleges charge, you see what a huge difference that is. We effectively save our students about a 160 thousand dollars, just the base price. The second responsible party is the family of the student. The family need to contribute as much as they can afford to contribute to the student's education. Oftentimes, when you both have the university doing whatever it can, like we do, to keep the cost down, and the families are doing whatever they can to contribute whatever it costs to attend the university, there's still a gap. That's where the students themselves come in. The students should have some skin in the game, they should have some personal responsibility. All of our students, as a first measure of financial aid, take about 5 thousand worth of loans every year, will graduate will at most 20 thousand dollars worth of debt, a sum that they can repay no matter what they do after "Minerva", and they will work in a work-study position that we arrange that'll pay between 15 to 20 dollars an hour. Yet even when all three parties do what they need to do — university keeping the cost low, parents contributing as much as they can, the students taking personal responsibility — there still is sometimes a need, and that is where scholarships come in. And Minerva spends an enormous amount of money raising funds for the benefit of our students, to enable them to participate in Minerva education.

SK: Was it hard to create this fund for it?

BN: Yes. Certainly when we were starting. Raising money to build an institution is not easy. But now, as you see results and the outcomes, we have a number of donors who have come to us and have expressed a lot of interest in supporting these students. We still have more fundraising to do, but we're very happy with the progress.

SK: As you know, we all work in middle school education, and a critical point for many students is a loss of motivation, and even the best high schools sometimes cannot help them. I would like to ask your opinion about school education, about middle school. What do you feel when you have a student graduated from a different country. I think you have some ideas about school education as well.

BN: I have pretty strong views of both early childhood, where all the research shows that outside of loving your child, which is very important, you need to make sure that the student is bilingual, knows how to play an instrument, and so we think that's very crucial. We have very strong views of high school education, which I think should be much more of a precursor to Minerva-like education. But middle school education, as you've pointed out, is kind of a black hole. There's not a lot of good research about the quality of education in middle school, there's certainly not a lot of great practitioners in that space, and so I wish I had more of an insight into middle school, I don't, but I'm looking forward to seeing what you will do.

SK: Thank you. Many people have told us that our project is similar to Minerva because we would like to reload or relaunch the whole educational system, you high and we middle school. And we as well use some technology but not in the standard way, and we also have blended learning like your school. I would like to ask for some advice as a successful guy who made it. What can you advise us when we're just launching our project?

SK: I think our most important piece of advice is have a very clear-minded view of what your outcomes are and the philosophy of how you get to those outcomes. And do not compromise because compromising on the quality of the output — and you'll get a lot of it, you'll say "oh, it's too hard", "it's too unconventional" or "too difficult to implement", or "the teachers won't like it" or what have you. When you give in to those types of temptations to make it easier, the quality will suffer. It's worth the pain and difficulty of finding a way to get to the correct approach rather than doing it 80% correct and then compromise the whole outcome.

SK: Thank you, we'll try not to compromise more than it's necessary to survive. And I would also like to take a step back and ask you for some advice about fundraising, how to find sponsors who are interested to support kids.

BN: I think in fundraising again, I think if you're very clear focused on what you're doing, a hypothesis, if you can just stick to those guns and talk to enough people — and you have to talk to many many many people — you will eventually find people who will resonate with your point of view, and that's when the fundraising happens. But you really have to find true believers when you're doing something like this.

SK: Thank you, we're looking for true believers in middle school education. My last question is, what do you think about the future of education, not only high education or middle school, but Education with a capital E.

BN: I think that one of the reasons that education has had such a hard time reforming is because the structure is not aligned with outcomes. But at the same time I think that the disparity of outcomes has not been dramatic enough — certainly in higher education — in order to be motivational for institutions to change. That is changing. I think once universities understand that, for example, how much better off the Minerva students are going to be with their kind of education, they won't be able to be just business as usual. I think similarly, when there are other types of outcome-oriented institutions that show a sustainable scalable model that other institutions won't be able to ignore them for long.

SK: I like the philosophy of Minerva because we are sure that even in middle school the most important for the kids are 3 things related to thinking: critical thinking, systematic thinking (not to have just an episode from history but a system of history) and of course creative thinking. We are sure these are the main points that we have to do for our students, especially when we are talking about the future with singularity and robotics and artificial intelligence, etc. And these three things — critical, systematic and creative thinking — make our students competitive in the future.

BN: Absolutely. Wonderful. It was nice to meet you.

SK: Thank you for our conversation and for the invitation to Consequent and good luck to you.

BN: Thank you, best of luck.

Read more about Minerva Project at https://www.minervaproject.com/