If there's one thing you should know about the Minerva Project – an online university that bills itself an Ivy League quality university of the digital age – it that Minerva is driven by ambition. And that goes for people who have dedicated themselves to the project as well – including the university's founding dean Stephen M. Kosslyn.
As Peter Monaghan of The Chronicle of Higher Education explains, Kosslyn knows Ivy League. Prior to coming on board to the university that plans to kick off in the fall of 2015, Kosslyn served as a professor of psychology and the dean of social science at Harvard University. Monaghan praises his expertise and pioneering research in the fields of cognitive neuroscience, an interest that two years ago led him to take over the directorship of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavior 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."
Kosslyn, who is 64, explains that by moving to Minerva he is looking for a real revolution in higher education. He wants to see a real change, not just something like a MOOC – an idea that looks like the brand new thing but is in reality just the same arrangement of the authority handing down bits of knowledge from on high, writ large.
Minerva will be as far from a MOOC as a university with an online component will get. For one, as Monaghan writes, it will have actual physical campuses spread out throughout the world, with two based in the United States. Although students might have something of a home campus, they will be strongly encouraged to rotate between them to get the full international experience.
The online component will come in to allow their studies to continue uninterrupted regardless of which particular campus they're currently calling home base.
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."