Where shared governance goes to die



I’ve had a strange fascination with an education start-up called Minerva for some time now. They’re a Silicon-Valley inspired online operation that has actually enrolled students now.  Yet unlike so many other for-profit education ventures they’ve always aspired to be highly selective – the first “Online Ivy.” I think the source of my fascination stems from my wonderment over exactly how they intend to pull this feat off. Has Minerva really built a better mousetrap?

So when another Minerva story showed up in my Twitter feed this morning, I clicked instantly to see if there were any new details and it did not disappoint. Here’s just a few excerpts from Nanette Asimov’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

[Founder Ben] Nelson says his point is to peel away extraneous costs that strangle innovation in higher education: athletics, for example. Or paying professors to do research rather than teach.


Minerva professors teach from anywhere. Last year, a school dean, Daniel Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” taught class from an airplane seat while on a book tour.

“More power to him,” said John Mitchell, Stanford’s vice provost of teaching and learning, who has visited Minerva and runs a research lab that studies online education. Mitchell’s group hasn’t looked at Minerva in particular, but he said he’s intrigued.

“They’re able to find good teachers who might be happily situated in a pueblo in Arizona or working in a medical research lab in a big city,” Mitchell said. “They have particular techniques they’re experimenting with that may turn out to be very good.”

One that piqued his interest: Sometimes when a student begins answering a question, the teacher rings a gong and has another student continue.


“Lab class is a waste,” said Nelson, the son of a lab scientist. He advises getting an internship to do lab work.

And my personal favorite:

So you won’t find history class at Minerva. There is, instead, “historical trend analysis.” Nor is there an English class. Students instead absorb “rhetorical tools.”

By the time I finished the article, I had an epiphany:  This is what a university would look like if the administrators held all the power: no research, no unions, completely interchangeable professors, and no academic freedom.  Minerva is what you get when you put administrators in absolute charge of everything – when shared governance completely disappears.

While some might blame the Internet for this situation, I wouldn’t. It’s the ideology behind this particular “university” that makes it this way, not the tools by which classes are delivered. Keep academic freedom and shared governance in an online setting and the result could be more than respectable. However, for that to happen faculty need to remain vigilant with respect to goings on in the online world – whether they actually teach online or not.