Former professor leads new model for higher education


For Stephen Kosslyn Ph.D. ’74, moving from Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences to become the founding dean of the Minerva Project may offer a unique experience to redefine the collegiate experience.

Minerva, which will welcome its inaugural class in 2015, will attempt to combine elements of classical and modern educational models in order to offer a more effective and affordable college experience. Enrolled students will take all classes online but — despite the lack of a central campus — will live together in traditional dorms in several countries, from which they will participate in online seminars in real-time and in classes no bigger than 25 students.

Kosslyn, who assumed his new position on April 1, previously served as one of the youngest professors of psychology in Harvard’s history, rising to become Harvard’s Dean of Social Sciences before leaving to direct Stanford’s Behavioral Sciences Center in 2011. He described the project’s model as one that will potentially allow offers of admission to all qualified applicants.

“A huge number of students who applied to a school like Harvard are qualified to do the work, and there is a need that is not being met,” Kosslyn said. “At Minerva, we want to avoid all that. We can expand and take anybody who is qualified.”

Kosslyn said he had not immediately been eager to leave Stanford for such an untested model. After being introduced by his wife to the university’s founder and CEO Ben Nelson, though, Kosslyn’s skepticism soon disappeared.

“The more I talked to him, the more convinced I was that he has effectively diagnosed the problems of higher education and has solid ideas of how to deal with them,” Kosslyn said.

Kosslyn said he became more and more involved in the project, eventually deciding he had to work on it full-time in order to effectively change the culture of higher education.

“I wasn’t looking for another job, but at Minerva I would have the chance to offer change in a way that I just wouldn’t if I stayed at my previous job,” he said. “I was really happy at Stanford, but this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass by.”

Kosslyn also emphasized the distinct nature of the Minerva Project’s model of education, such as the use of flipped classrooms, compensating faculty in accordance with students’ performance, an emphasis on practical content and rotating students through campuses around the world.

“It’s about deep learning,” Kosslyn said. “We aim to shape intuitions so people can use the information and skills they learn creatively. We are a liberal arts college that wants to invent new ways of learning to equip people with the tools to live a full life and succeed.”

Kosslyn also noted the participation of other prominent individuals in the project. Former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Larry Summers and former Senator Bob Kerrey (D — Neb.) both serve on the Project’s advisory board.

“Minerva is already having an impact because people are starting to pay more attention to it,” Kosslyn said. “At this point, it is clear what we are doing and how well it is going.”

To date, work has focused on developing the software platform and composing the curriculum, among other tasks.

“We’re also organizing the different majors, so the next step for me is to start hiring faculty additional administrators,” Kosslyn said. “Everything is pretty much on track.”

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