New President Mike Magee shares his story, secrets to success and what makes the institution so unique.
More selective than all Stanford, MIT and Ivy League schools, the small but mighty global disruptor Minerva University pushes the boundaries of what higher education might look like in the future. Perhaps few will strive to be so ambitious – with its rented campuses spread across seven cities around the world – or so open-minded in their adherence to seminar-style courses.
But Minerva’s quest to be very different, to make everyone who signs up citizens of the world, makes a strong case for a revolutionary model in a time of political polarization, global conflict, panic and isolation fueled by a pandemic. This creative offshoot of the Minerva project, which gained accreditation last year, may have just 1,000 students. But new president Mike Magee foresees more global growth, as his learners become leaders on the world stage.
“When I think of the most intractable challenges we face, whether it’s the pandemic, the war in Ukraine or the climate crisis, the common thread is the utter failure of leaders around the world to understand and cooperate across lines of difference,” said Magee, the former founder of Change Leaders and long-time teacher, who was named president of Minerva just a few months ago. “Minerva people learn this at a very young age. They are the future leaders of businesses, governments, nonprofits and movements around the world. It gives us good reason to be optimistic and it’s kind of our reason for existing.
Despite its selectivity (less than 1% in 2021), one of Minerva’s distinctive traits is its diversity. The San Francisco-based university attracts students from 70 countries and allows them to study in the United States while facilitating multiple experiential learning efforts in London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Taipei and Hyderabad, in India. Because they work in groups of 150, Magee says “they have to work with each other on projects across every conceivable line of difference. It’s fundamental to the ethics and fundamental to our university. He says that these collaborations can be transformational, paraphrasing a sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “He talks about how we are all interconnected across all lines of difference across the world. He calls it a single garment of destiny I think that’s the value we live by at Minerva.
Another positive is affordability, with standard prices at Minerva well below those of its competitors. So far the framework works. Minerva has just been named the best university in the world for innovation in the World Real Impact Universities (WURI) Report, ahead of Arizona State, Stanford and MIT. Magee admits he and college are just getting started, though he says, “I’m more excited than ever about Minerva’s future. University Affairs spoke with the new president to learn more about Minerva’s missions and place in higher education:
What drew you to Minerva? What sets it apart from other establishments?
The first is that it is uniquely global and immersive. The innovation of creating a four-year undergraduate program structured around rotations around the world is quite different from study abroad programs. Our students live in these cities in a real way. Part of the reason it works is that we have a project-based approach to undergraduate learning that asks our students to consider the city they live in as their classroom. The second thing is that our students are uniquely ethical and driven. We teach that. Our courses are designed to be deeply pragmatic, to help students think about how their learning relates to their purpose and what they want to do while at Minerva and after they leave.
Minerva students are engaged in end-of-year ceremonies called “Consequence”, which challenge students to participate in a complex set of questions around civil discourse. Is this theme increasingly prevalent in higher education?
The question of whether we can have civil speech, whether we should have civil speech and what that even looks like seems to be happening on every college campus in the United States, I think the bigger question is, is it structured in such a way that box facilitate and promote civil discourse? At Minerva, we have incorporated the need for civil discourse into the structure of our university. It is an essential element of our institution.
Two students from Ukraine contacted you very early on during a Zoom call with two students from Brazil. Can you tell more about them and the Ukrainian students you have in your community?
We currently have 49 Ukrainian students. They are suffering enormously because of what is happening in their country. We do our best to support them. We have organized forums about the war, not only to give space to Ukrainian students, but to give the community a chance to speak. We also have Russian students, and we are committed to civil discourse, even in the most difficult circumstances. Despite this, there was a feeling of joy [from the two Ukraine students] that they had the opportunity to talk about what they like about Minerva, how their year went and the ways they want to improve it. This is not to ignore the trauma that some of our students experience, but right now the global perspective they gained at Minerva really matters to them.
A significant issue facing higher education, especially with the pandemic and inflation, is affordability for students. How does Minerva stay competitive on a net cost basis?
We are as selective as any selective university in the world. We are also blind to demographic needs. We are committed to accepting any student who meets our bar for admission, regardless of background. This is an important commitment for us. In designing the Global Residency Program for our undergraduate students, we made the fateful decision not to incur any debts that we need to repay. We rent our residences all over the world. Nor will we participate in the arms race to make college campuses look like country clubs. This is not our purpose, mission or vision as a university. This is largely the reason why a Minerva education costs far less than half of what the most selective private universities cost.
What are the biggest challenges facing higher education?
Affordability. Everyone knows that the cost of higher education has skyrocketed. It far exceeds the increase in the cost of living each year. As a father who has two daughters in very selective and expensive American universities, I feel it myself. Something has to be done about this. Minerva does not participate in US federal loan programs. We have our own approach to providing loans to students who need them, but we also cap them. We do not believe that students should go into massive debt. Not everyone can run a university based on global rotations in seven cities around the world. But I think there are lessons to be learned from Minerva about affordability and how you can deliver a truly exceptional undergraduate education without sky-high costs.
The other is that there is a significant number of students who do not know why they are pursuing an undergraduate degree except that it is somehow related to their social nobility. If all you have is that a bachelor’s degree somehow improves your ability to earn a living, it doesn’t motivate you to learn. It is dangerous for higher education. We do not orient classroom experiences toward memorization and regurgitation of facts. We want students to be able to take all the knowledge they acquire and apply it across disciplines in meaningful ways. We strongly believe in project-based and experiential learning. The learning stays with you deeper.
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