Ben Nelson is audacious enough to try launching a university he wants to make as prestigious as Harvard. So it should surprise no one that he is creating a prize he hopes will rival the Nobel.

Nelson is CEO and founder of the Minerva Project, a for-profit university that promises an Ivy League-caliber education at half the cost. When the institution opens in 2015, students will collocate at dorms around the world and take online classes from top-ranked professors. Nelson's priority--and what he believes should be higher education's priority--is to mint brilliant leaders for the future. That will require brilliant teachers in the present.

Introduction of the Minerva Prize

So today Minerva announced an annual $500,000 prize for innovative teaching in higher education. It also announced the creation of a global academy of educators to promote and reward innovation in pedagogy. The Minerva Academy's first member and governor is Roger Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2006 and whose father, Arthur Kornberg, won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1959. 

Nelson points out that most non-university-specific rewards in academia are tied to research. He has nothing but respect for "professors who create papers that are well-cited and have meaning and impact," he says. "But we have a dual purpose--not only knowledge creation but also intellectual development." The academy and prize, he says, "at least begin mirroring the research infrastructure as far as giving teaching the recognition and prestige it deserves."

A Focus on Teachers Who Change Lives

Of course, evaluating the quality of instruction is trickier than evaluating the quality of a body of research and publications. Nelson says Minerva Prize winners and professors elected to its academy will be not just first-rate instructors but also people "who change the way students look at the world." So, for example, a professor cited as influential by numerous leading thinkers in a given field would make a good candidate. So would a professor innovating a pedagogic model, such as adaptive learning or peer instruction. 

Nominations for the prize--the first of which will be awarded in May 2014--is open to any professor at any institution of higher learning worldwide. Nelson hopes that the presence of Minerva Prize winners on faculties will eventually raise those universities' rankings as much as the presence of Nobel winners does now. And he doesn't want to remain the only game in town. "We hope this inspires other types of rewards and recognitions so as to create a richer ecosystem around teaching," he says. "So someone will create the equivalent of a Field Medal for Instruction. Or something like the MacArthur Genius Grant that doesn't go to just one professor but to many." 

The Minerva Academy and the Minerva Prize will reside within the Minerva Institute, the company's non-profit arm, led by former Nebraska senator and New School president Bob Kerrey. The Institute is funded by the Minerva Project, which raised $25 million last year, and plans to raise additional funding. "A number of potential donors have expressed interest in underwriting the Minerva Prize," says Nelson. "But if not, we will pay for it ourselves."

"We are trying to redefine a tier-one university as one that is second to none both in research and instruction," says Nelson. "The more every institution embraces both those standards instead of just one, the better for the whole industry."