Building the Intentional University

Ben Nelson, Stephen M Kosslyn

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Highly Recommend

Minerva is one of the coolest ideas I have ever come across, and has me thinking that real change in higher education is possible. The founders of Minerva took a top-down look at all of the problems and issues with higher education and all the research on learning and turned it into arguably the best thought-out university in the world. This book outlines that process and the vision for Minerva.


The thing that struck me most about this book was how well thought-out the entire system of Minerva is. The book explains each step of why Ben and Stephen created Minervia in the manner that they did. Universities obviously are extremely complicated entities, and every single justification for a change from the old system has a backing in either empirical research. This book opened my mind to the flaws of large, educational institutions more than any other book and gave me hope for change.

The book starts off by explaining why we need to change. Basically all universities claim to teach “critical thinking” or want student to “become global citizens,” but rarely do universities actually explain how to do that, much less design their systems around it.

Minerva aims to teach students practical knowledge which is knowledge they can use for an ever-changing world. They broke them down into four core competencies: thinking critically, thinking creatively, communicating effectively and interacting effectively.

From there, they aimed to break it down further into production systems which consist of a condition/action pair. (For example, a production might say “If it’s raining, get an umbrella”). He breaks it down further to say there are two kinds of production systems: habits of mind and foundational concepts (together shorthand as HCs). Habits of mind are easily recognizable conditions with harder actions (“Tailor oral and written work for the audience,” is easy to identify but harder to complete). In contrast, foundational concepts are not hard to implement, but hard to identify (correlation vs causation). Minerva then attaches a number of these in each course, and also deliberately tries to teach far reach to be able to apply them to many scenarios.

They structured majors and curriculum with three main goals in mind: content should not be the focus, the curriculum must be structured, courses should be seminal, and students need information and guidance to make wise choices. With that in mind, students follow the following 4-year track:

  • First year is 4 year-long courses covering the 4 core competencies. These courses provide lots of breadth across many topics and introduce HCs to students. There is little choice for students.
  • Second year is major core courses, foundational courses that teach students seminal knowledge in that field. There are three courses in each major, and each course takes a different scale. For example, in natural sciences, the first deals with particles/atoms, the second deals with cells/organisms, and the third deals with Earth’s systems.
  • Third year provides a lot of breadth in a topic.
  • The fourth year, the students get to decide what to study. They pick topics, then a small group forms and a teacher is found to help design a syllabus and teach the students. They have a ton of control over what they pick. In addition, a capstone project must be created in their final year relating to their major.

The middle part of the book was the slowest, and concerned how the teachers teach. A few highlights:

  • Pretty much everything they did was based off of empirical research in the science of learning. They made this very clear.
  • Active learning was very important for them, and with that they always have classrooms over under 20 students and have students engaged at least 75% of the time. They do this by having detailed class plans and collaborating across many classes to find out what works best.
  • They developed their own, in house software platform to let them do this. The Active Learning Forum places all students at the front of the classroom and gives professors numerous tools to facilitate polling, calling on students, breaking into groups, etc.
  • Their assessments are different as well, grading them both on content but also application of HCs. In addition, they don’t receive final grades on things until they graduate, because they must continue to apply the HCs throughout their 4 years.

The admissions process is different: they try extremely hard to make sure they don’t favor wealth. They do this by doing the following:

  • No application fees
  • No quotas based on any criteria. They also can admit as many or as few student qualify
  • No athletic teams and students getting into strong universities through athletics
  • Not favoring legacies at all
  • The interview process is random interview questions over video. This is scalable and doesn’t allow students to get uneven help from parents
  • Past academic performance and accomplishments are also taken into account, including their respective contexts (IE they don’t favor being middle of a target high school)
  • They market everywhere in the world and make a strong point that no one country has a majority population. Applicants came from ~180 countries, with around 70 countries eventually representing the student body.

Their campus is not really a campus, students travel between 7 cities over the course of their college career: San Francisco, Berlin, Hyderabad, Seoul, Buenos Aries, London and Taipei. They have specific activates designed to help students engage with each city, including working with location education, business or community-based organizations to help solve problems. Some include deliverables at the end, while others are more brainstorming based. In addition, students are expected to create experiences: for example, in Berlin students took a day and explored the food of the city.

One thing he describes in detail is the accreditation process and how that relates to prestige. Most regional accreditation organizations require the university to have graduated students before being accredited, which is obviously an issue if you want to be selected. They were able to partner with the Keck Graduate Institute to get around this, because KGI was already accredited and also didn’t already have an undergrad program.

“96% of chief academic officers….say that their institution is “very or somewhat” effective at preparing students for the world of work. The same study found that a mere 14% of Americans strongly agree that college graduates are well prepared to achieve success in the workplace”

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