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.

One thought on “Where shared governance goes to die.

  1. Hi Jonathan, we are back to square one. Minerva is private. It has “created a program that individuals are free to take or reject, in whole or in part and pay the cost to access the experience. The individuals are supposed to be free to make decisions, seek information on alternatives and seek advice. The same holds for those providing the experiences. They are free to design and offer what they have designed. It’s the experiential “department store or, if one accepts Robin Chase’s take in her book Peers, Inc, it’s Peer to Peer with the “platform” or corporation providing the linkage.

    This is not the “idea” of a university but then since Bologna what was, and is, a university depends on the same problem faced by the blind men describing the elephant. More importantly, starting with Bologna, faculty traded the responsibility to be their own institution when they gave up such privilege to those who provide the pay checks. In the past that fiscal reality was only minimally applied. Today, the “golden rule” has been put on the table and the faculty needs to convince those who apply that rule that they should have a voice. But what do the faculty put into the pot in order to have a say? That is the question since the philosophical argument seems to have suffered a depreciated value.

    Minerva is a paradigmatic example of what happens in an Internet world where knowledge (at least basic knowledge-think undergraduate, think fresh/soph- is fungible, increasingly decreasing in cost and transferable across geopolitical boundaries. In labor or union terms, the entire education system, globally, is now plagued with intellectual or academic scabs, anywhere the Internet reaches. Universities are taking advantage of this by sharing courses or certificates/badges and other evidence and letting students combine these to exchange for a degree, like coupons or badges collected in various manners.

    As we are seeing more and more, academics, particularly those who know of or have experienced the halcyon days fo the 70’s and 80’s where institutions were expanding and hiring at great speed, are now finding that this market is becoming tighter. The response has been to write books, scholarly articles and blogs, but action seems to never have reached the stage of the previous social activist movement. The system allows for this persiflage because the faculty seems more like pre-union coal miners and factory workers who know that if they fall, there are a legion of adjuncts and others willing to step into the breach.

    It’s not the private institutions like Minerva. I believe there is a line from MacBeth: A tale…full of sound and furty signifying nothing.

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.