Listen to this article, read by Ezza Naveed.

The year is (sometime in the future), and a network of global leaders are working together across continents, languages, and disciplines on some of the world’s biggest problems. Be they scientists, artists, industry executives or NGO directors, they are particularly well-equipped with the skills needed to navigate a world with diverse cultures and common threats. Within their toolbox of competencies are empathy, agency, open-mindedness and grit. 

This is not a utopian fantasy, but rather the strategic vision that centers Mike Magee, PhD, and his students at Minerva University, a recently formed, selective institution aimed at developing the global leaders of the future. 

“Our mission is to develop leaders, problem-solvers, and entrepreneurs from every corner of the globe and to weave them together as one community committed to a world that is safe, sustainable and equitable,” said Magee, President of Minerva. 

Accredited in 2021, the university was originally called The Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, founded by Ben Nelson and operated by the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, where former US Senator and President Emeritus of the New School Bob Kerry served as executive chairman. Based in San Francisco, Minerva utilizes a hybrid platform of online learning and study away to engage high achieving students from around the world in a different kind of education. Within their regular studies, students work on location-based assignments in seven international cities. 

By design, it is the world’s most diverse university: less than 15% of its 600 students are from the US, and many come from low-income communities. Minerva has also been ranked “the world’s most innovative university,” and for good reason. To achieve a goal as ambitious as Magee describes within a system as traditional as higher education, Minerva had to reinvent pretty much everything. With minimal infrastructure, an unusual faculty profile, and a unique pedagogy, Minerva offers a fresh approach to higher education at a time of deep frustration with the status quo. 

College — reimagined 

One of the most obvious differences between Minerva and its elite peers is the environment in which students learn. Large, theater-style lecture halls do not exist. In fact, the school has minimal infrastructure which keeps the tuition about half that of many colleges. Classes of no more than 20 students are live and online and involve pre-class work and full participation. The goal is to create intimate learning environments that are dialogue based where students build relationships with peers and professors, even as they are mostly remote. After spending their first year in San Francisco taking the same general education curriculum, students move in cohorts to an additional 6 cities each semester: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Taipei, and London.

“It’s a very special type of person who wants to work here.”

“From the beginning, we decided we were not going to build beautiful campuses. We were going to intentionally teach young people to treat economically and culturally vibrant cities as their campuses – to use their libraries, museums and labs and to immerse themselves in their cultures.”

Another feature that sets Minerva apart is the kind of people it attracts. Michael Horn is a trustee at Minerva and has been involved with the school since the beginning. “I see Minerva as a disruptive entrant into the elite higher education segment,” said Horn, who has authored several books including one with Clayton Christenson, considered the father of disruptive innovation theory. “It puts the learner and their needs first and prepares them for a complex world in a way that’s much more front and center than other higher ed institutions who are often asking themselves ‘Are we a research-first institution? Why do we exist?’ At Minerva, we are very clear. We are a learning institution.” 

A former international relations professor at the University of Southern California, Dollie   Davis taught in one of those large lecture halls and eventually left higher ed feeling unfulfilled. She worked in the non-profit sector until the chance to join Minerva lured her back to teaching. She is now Minerva’s dean of faculty.

“It’s a very special type of person who wants to work here,” she said. “We don’t have a publishing requirement and we don’t have tenure. Without the requirement to publish, we focus primarily on teaching. We care about our specific model of teaching and being engaged with our students.”

Davis says everything about Minerva is intentional which translates into a collective “buy-in” of the unusual culture. 

“The students know they are coming into a challenging university where classes are taught in the active learning style,” she said. “They know that they are going to be called on so as soon as they log on, they’re ready to go. It’s on us, the faculty, to promote a strong sense of community and a safe space in the classroom so they feel comfortable sharing new ideas. That’s a big part of our training.” 

Minerva professors are trained in an active learning pedagogy and the technology that enables it. With students and professors throughout the world, Minerva’s digital platform is critical, and the university is quick to distinguish it from the online accommodations colleges were forced to make due to the pandemic. The platform delivers real-time information to faculty and students during classroom discussion, which allows them to display material for the purpose of informing the conversation. Students and faculty see one another on a digital “stage” and can be moved around the screen. If students have worked together on a pre-class project and need to present, the professor can visually pair them with their material alongside them. Davis believes a digital theater can be more intimate than an actual classroom where it is easier to hide. 

Magee says many schools use online learning simply for knowledge transmission when they can be working the technology around the science of learning. “The technology should enable the pedagogy you choose. What do we want the classroom experience to be like? What type of outcomes are we trying to achieve for students?” In Minerva’s case, it is the evidence that emerging adults retain more knowledge from experiences and dialogue than they do from simply receiving information. 

An important distinction in the curriculum is the relevance of real-world problems which students work on in location-based assignments. Students in Buenos Aires taking Dean Davis’s economics class, for example, will attend a financial museum and discuss the history of the city’s economy and policies with the local experts there. Students who take sustainability courses on topics like energy or water can apply what they learn to projects they will work on in Seoul or Berlin. The variation in these experiences teaches students how different people and systems respond to similar challenges. 

To build their cultural competencies, students learn to master what the school calls “HC’s” – 75 habits and concepts that are basic tools for critical thinking and effective communication that students will use across their lifetime. They are particularly important when working across differences – a foundational principle in global citizen-building. Students are introduced to the HC’s in their first year and are assessed on them throughout their time at Minerva. Davis says the HC’s are continuously “pulled” throughout class and are referenced by hashtags that get students to think instantaneously. 

“When talking about a geopolitical conflict, I might say “hashtag - audience” to remind students of how what they’re saying affects others; or “hashtag - break it down” when we are working on problem-solving,” she said. 

The HC’s include personal characteristics such as purpose and resilience, which are linked to improved mental health and wellbeing, something that is highly valued at a school that asks a lot of its students. “Our curriculum is intentionally designed to build resilience in students and have them grow in those ways,” said Horn. “Resilience is incredibly important to wellbeing because things aren’t always going to be great, and it is how you respond that is important.” 

Magee said the challenges students face in becoming global citizens are not minimal. “I don’t want to give the impression that any of this is easy,” he said. “It’s really hard when you have young people who are by and large between the ages of 17 and 22 and they’re wary of one another and they’re still trying to develop their own sense of how the world works. And there’s a lot they still need to know about history and politics and identity.”

“If anyone wants to ‘do Minerva,’ you should be prepared that it will upend much of what you know about the world,” said Ezza Naveed, a Minerva alumnus of the class of 2021.

Naveed was a highschool student in her native Pakistan when she told her guidance counselor she was not interested in a traditional four-year university. “If it were up to me, I would have traveled the world instead of going to college – I think it would teach me more,” she said. But her mother had other ideas and so her guidance counselor suggested an alternative -- Minerva. Naveed was an excellent student, though her grades had slipped that year due to a significant personal loss. She had achieved much in her young life including working on class poverty within her community, which she wrote about in her application. She was overjoyed when she was accepted.

“I think Minerva saw in me someone who, if given this education, was going to run with it and make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Naveed now says Minerva was the exciting, soul- searching, transformational experience she had hoped for, building her sense of empathy and understanding of different cultures and helping her discover new parts of herself. 

“The most formative experiences in my life happened in all of these cities around the world, in all these unique cultures where I learned new customs and made best friends for life,” she said. In Seoul, she joined the local debate team at Hanyang University and was amazed that she became a quarter finalist for the Seoul National Debate Tournament. During her trek to Patagonia whilst living in Buenos Aires, and doing solo hikes by herself, she realized something. “I, as a woman, can compete and do anything, anywhere in the world,” she remembers thinking, countering the cultural narrative she grew up with about the inferior capabilities of women. 

“For me, Minerva was about ‘unlearning that,’” she said. 

Naveed wrote her Minerva capstone on gender immobility of Pakistani women. “I was always passionate about this issue, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to bring that forward,” she said. “Minerva gave me that toolbox. I lived in 5 out of the 7 countries where I got to see what ‘normal’ was like for women in different parts of the world.”

When she returned to Pakistan after graduation, she sensed that her peers did not get the same opportunities and had not grown in the same ways, even those she considered “really smart.” She attributes that to a systemic and personal investment gap in their education. “At Minerva, my professors knew me so well, the staff knew me so well. They were so invested in my success, and they really cared for us, my friends cared for me, it was just a deeply caring community. I realized that’s not a universal thing.” Shortly after graduating, she formed a partnership with Codematics, a tech company in Pakistan to teach low-income students, aged 18 to 25, for her project "Young Leaders Program" at Urraan, both hard tech skills like coding but also personal, pragmatic skills like public speaking, how to pitch an idea and networking. She is particularly proud of the outcomes she has seen in her female students.

“I think Minerva saw in me someone who, if given this education, was going to run with it and make a difference in people’s lives.”

Naveed is now a student at Harvard Graduate School of Education where she runs the student organization, Women’s Education Movement which recently hosted a leadership forum for School of Leadership Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s first and only boarding school for girls.  She continues to feel the personal growth that occurred when at Minerva – “My friends and I can literally go anywhere and figure it out” -- but she cautions that the school is not for everyone.

When asked about the challenges she encountered, Narveed is candid about the emotional toll it can take on students, particularly those, like her, who had suffered a loss or were emotionally vulnerable.

“The mental, emotional load of it was really tiring,” she said. “We had to uproot and reroute and establish community from scratch in all these places -- and then there was the pandemic -- it really took a toll on me, mentally, emotionally and physically.” Naveed said students, particularly in the early classes, felt particularly dependent on one another and their professors. “The only sense of stability came from our own friendship and community.”

The school has worked on strengthening its mental health services platform which included coordinating therapy appointments around countries and time zones which Naveed said was a problem early on. Her ability to put these challenges in the context of her overall experience hints at the resilience Minerva believes is a part of global leadership.

“It can be challenging but it is extremely worth it. If I could go back and do it all again, I absolutely would.” 

Expanding the pipeline

If there was one thing Magee would change about Minerva it would be to make it available to more students around the world which reflects a deep personal commitment to and experience with educational equity. An academic for many years, Magee left higher ed to found a network of new, racially integrated public schools in Rhode Island before coming to Minerva. 

“Since I was a child, I’ve been really fascinated by and passionate about the role that schools can play in bringing young people together from lots of different backgrounds and across many lines of difference into community and belonging with each other.”

Magee acknowledges that the rigorous pedagogy and international campus require a certain level of skill and maturity, (as Ezza Narveed points out, it’s not for everyone), but he hopes to open Minerva up to more students for whom the unique method would be beneficial. Last year, the school grew its student body by 20% and plans to do the same in the coming year. With faculty that can be onboarded anywhere in the world and ample real estate available in their host cities, Minerva’s model makes it easy to expand.

“I think it’s fair to say that none of us is satisfied with limiting this to 600 students,” said Michael Horn. 

In regard to being a prototype for change, Magee hopes other institutions will acknowledge the value of low capital costs to solve one of higher education’s biggest barriers, the rising cost of tuition. Magee blames the current unaffordability of higher ed for many Americans, and the resulting decline in public support for it, on a growing trend toward a business model more akin to a luxury brand or a country club membership. “The elite institutions started this trend by intentionally constraining supply, astronomically raising prices, emphasizing their elitism and not thinking about how to create an experience that is more available and less alienating,” he said. Magee believes the strategy pays off for the relatively few institutions whose alumni will enjoy a lifetime of social capital but is a debilitating trend for the rest. 

“It has really broken higher education in America.” 

If Minerva can offer an alternative path, one that can be scaled to reach far more of the future global citizens the world needs, Magee is happy to share it. His focus on growth also reveals a desire to prove something to those who may interpret “innovative” as “experimental.”  

“I think we can do a real service to higher ed by growing to a size where we’re a little less easy to dismiss.”