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Exclusive Interview with President Bob Kerrey
Transcribed by Yehuda Bayme


Bob Kerrey
Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New York Times

Dr. Pola Rosen, Publisher Education Update (PR): I am here with Bob Kerrey at the New York Times Center Conference on Digital Learning. Bob, when I last met you, you were president of The New School. What are your current endeavors in education?

Bob Kerrey (BK): I am very passionate still about higher education and very excited about Minerva, a new four-year college. [Minerva is a new college in northern California that has a tuition of $10,000 per year, and ultimately will be free].

I am the executive chairman of the Institute. The Institute’s responsibilities are essentially twofold: to provide financial aid for students and to provide overhead for research faculty. At the moment, we are not really providing scholarships, but in a year or two, presuming the KGI-Minerva proposal to our regional creditors is approved, we will be providing financial aid for students. We have an application for regional accreditation for this undergraduate program. The official name is the Keck Graduate Institute.

PR: Keck, as in the Keck Medical School of USC?

BK: No, but it is the same family that funds it. The family must have an interest in healthcare, because they are doing a lot of science-based professional educational programs.

PR: What was the motivation to found this college?

BK: The motivation began with Ben Nelson’s undergraduate education at Penn. Ben is the founder and CEO. His family is deeply involved in higher education. He was born in Haifa, Israel. His father just won the Israel Prize. He is on the faculty in the Tel Aviv University and still a very serious teacher of science. His mother and sister are also educators. It began with his undergraduate education at Penn. He took a course in the history of higher education and became interested in a different kind of curriculum—a different kind of organizational structure. He made some progress and Professor Judy Rodin was there at the time and she actually implemented some of the recommendations Ben had. He went on to run Snapfish [a web-based photo sharing and photo printing service], but he kept this idea, not just in his head, but continued to research about how to do it. So, when he stepped down as CEO of Snapfish he began to plan the establishment of Minerva. He and I met in the spring of 2011. After stepping down as president of The New School, I met with four or five people, in both for-profit as well as not-for-profit, innovators trying to do things differently. And I thought that he had the most innovative idea in higher education that I have heard in my lifetime. I think we will succeed and help American universities and colleges do what they are trying to do, which is to respond to all the kinds of things that happen—technology, competition and renewed interest in price.

PR: What will you provide that is different from other colleges and universities?

BK: It is important first to point out that there are a lot of similarities. The Keck-Minerva offering would be similar in its residential program: small classes, intense, interactive classes that the students will be taking. The difference will be that we start [the students] with a clean slate and say that when they done, they know how to think critically. Whether they are in physics or poetry, it doesn’t matter. You need to be able to think critically and to communicate the results of your analysis. There are many universities who are attempting to do that, but I think we will do it better.

PR: How are you recruiting the faculty?

BK: Recruiting the faculty is essential and the key in making our university well run. Ben had the capacity to recruit Stephen Kosslyn as our lead dean. Stephen is a distinguished academic and cognitive psychologist who has given a lot of thought on how to teach. He ran a school at Harvard and at an institute in Stanford. He is a very distinguished academic with a lot of knowledge on how to write a syllabus, how to develop a curriculum, [and how to] recruit academic leaders. We find that a lot of people in academia are excited about participating in this because it breaks the mold. It is why they went into the profession. The good news in higher education is that a couple million people have chosen to become faculty, and I would say well over half of them are in it for the right reason. They want to help.  Maybe when going to college they had a great teacher and they said: “that’s what I want to be. I want to change people’s lives as well.” We are going to find a lot of high-quality people. It is going to be easier, because we can hire a lot of post-docs. And there are a lot of high quality post-docs out there that can’t find work. We are all about teaching. There is no debate inside Minerva; “what’s more important: research or teaching?” In our case, the only research that is really important is the research we are doing to help our teachers do a better job teaching.

PR: Can you describe what you mean by rotating campuses and living in different places?

BK: We believe that a student benefits from going to different locations. Learning how to adjust to what might feel like an alien environment, a different environment is enormously valuable. So when we are fully developed, we will do that. Because our capital costs are low, we will be able to open two campuses per year after 2015.

PR: Will you be using other people’s buildings? Is that what the plan is: to share campuses with somebody else?

BK: It will be a combination. We will have a dedicated residential and communal space for our undergraduates. They need that. Especially in the first year, they need it. What we will have on the other hand is shared facilities that make sense. So on the research side, let’s say you want to be a part of our faculty and you say, “I have got a ten million dollar National Science Foundation research grant.” I, as the executive chairman of the institute, will say, “I am going to charge you four percent overhead, which is about 30 to 40 percent less than other institutions. You own all the intellectual property.  Whatever you discovered, you own it, but you have got to go out and find your space, because we are not going to provide you with space for your research.” The good news is that there are lots of labs out there and lots of space out there where people are trying to find others to partner with.

PR: Well, I love the example you gave when you said to your father, “It is the teacher’s fault.” And your father replied, “That’s ridiculous! Go do your homework!”

BK: This gets to a question you haven’t asked and that is; when we recruit a student, we are looking for highly motivated students. We ask, “How well did you do in school? What kind of leadership qualities do you have?” Does the SAT matter? If you got a low SAT, and you are doing well in class and you are highly motivated, you are probably going to do fine at Minerva.

PR: What about learning disabled students? They are very motivated but they can’t always do the work.

BK: That is a very good question. I would say that the answer would be in some cases yes and in some cases no. Look, any student that is qualified and we believe that he is going to do the work is going to be accepted. There is no reason for us to say no to anybody that is sufficiently motivated and we believe that they can get the job done. We are not going to exclude people because they have learning disabilities, and we are not going to include them because they got 1,600s on their SATs.

PR: Right. So, how do you see digital education and digital learning as being part of your vision at Minerva, because that is what we are talking about here?

BK: It was once said about Dan Quayle, that he made “bimbo” a gender-neutral word. We don’t have a bias against technology. It is likely that we are going to take advantage of the digital environment. If you can demonstrate that the quality is higher and the costs are lower, we are going to do it. We are not going to have a committee to decide if it meets some sort of academic test. The only test that matters is high quality, low cost. You are going to find some times when digital is the answer and sometimes when analog is the answer.

PR: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Education Update? You have always played such an important role in education.

BK: I am a believer. Education is more important than anything in the world. It’s enormously important for the human race. We are not playing small ball here. The future of humanities is at stake here.

PR: Well, what about the degree versus having the certificate that tells you you’ve got a skill in a certain area?

BK: We believe that we need four years of your time. You are not going to sit around and say, “Gee, I have got to quit earlier.”

PR: Who were your mentors?

BK: My parents were my mentors. My father, for example, taught me that if you want to complain about a job, wait until it’s over. And whatever you do, do it as well as you can and try to do it right the first time, because it is expensive as hell to do it a second time.

PR: What kind of work did he do?

BK: Homebuilder. He came back after the war. He was orphaned. He grew up in Chicago. He came back to Nebraska. He was stationed there during the war. He came back, bought a lumber and coal business. My mother was very special to me. I took organic chemistry in college. My mother had seven children. My two older brothers were out of the house and there were four kids at home. She did everything. She cleaned the house, cooked, kept my dad’s books—she did it all. She went back to college. I took organic chemistry. My mother was in the same class. I had to work like hell to beat her.

PR: That’s an incredible story. Did she finish college?

BK: Oh, yeah. She never got a score less than an A the entire time she attended.#



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