This piece is part of Meet Minerva, a series of interviews introducing the Minerva community to the humans behind the school’s policies and classes. This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Stiefel: Tell me a little about your life.

Teri Cannon: In my personal life I’m a mom with a 27-year-old son who just became a lawyer. I really love my close relationship with my son. Since we’re both lawyers now we have a new area of commonality that brings us together, he tells me about the cases he’s working on, so that’s a really great part of my life.

I have a lot of really good friends and spend time cooking because I love to have dinner parties. I’m a member of all the art museums in the Bay Area and I love visiting them. I also love to travel. I haven’t been able to travel as much as I would like but I have traveled a lot in the past few years particularly with Minerva.

I also was a dean of two small law schools in California earlier in my career and my area of expertise academically is ethics, so I have a book that I wrote for paralegals on legal ethics which is now in its eighth edition. I first wrote it 27 years ago when I was pregnant with my son and now I’ve found a protege that I turned it over to because I don’t have time to work on it.

I love to help cultivate people that I work with and to help mentor them and provide them with opportunities when I see a lot of promise in them. Before I came to Minerva I worked for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). I was the executive vice president there and I was there for six and a half years, so I’ve worked in accreditation almost my whole career.

I love to help cultivate people that I work with and to help mentor them and provide them with opportunities when I see a lot of promise in them.

ES: Tell me more about your work with Minerva, especially accreditation, because I think many students don’t know much about what it involves.

TC: Let me tell you a little bit about accreditation first. In the US there are six regional accrediting agencies and one of those is the WASC that I mentioned earlier. Each of them has an assigned part of the country, so we’re in the Western region. WASC accredits about 200 institutions, which are all four year and above institutions. Regional accreditation is the kind of accreditation that most institutions want to have. It covers the whole institution and is the most credible kind of accreditation available, so that means that the Department of Education recognizes it and universities all over the country recognize it, so your degrees will be recognized out in the world. Stanford, USC, all of the UCs, all the major privates that you know about are all accredited by the same accrediting agency as we are.

The way that Minerva has accreditation is a little unusual, because in order to apply for accreditation you have to have graduates in your program, which makes it very difficult to start a new institution because you would have to operate without accreditation for at least four or five years before you have graduates. The only reasonable pathway to have accreditation when we opened our doors was to do what’s called “incubating” inside another accredited institution. So when we started out, we interviewed maybe 20 college presidents to try to find the right place to incubate. We were looking for a place that really understood what we were trying to do and would give us the oversight that’s required for us to incubate in this institution but not try to control everything that we did, that had enough confidence in what we were trying to do and wouldn’t second guess every decision we make.

We ended up with Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), one of the seven colleges in the Claremont Consortium. It’s a graduate program except for us, and we went with them in part because they didn’t already have an existing undergraduate program where it might feel weird for us to fit in. We are their undergraduate program. So we partnered with them, we’re incubating there until we split off and get separate accreditation, which will probably be in a couple years. But for the time being we have been incubating there, and what we have been required to do was to submit our detailed 70 page agreement with KGI that assured the accrediting agency that the accredited institution would have oversight of our academic and financial program. The president of KGI, who you may have met at convocation, approves things like every faculty member that’s hired, big changes in academic policy, and the faculty handbook. We develop them but then they approve them. We report to their board at every single one of board meetings. The plan is to separate at the point when we can have our own accreditation, and we’re about to start that process. It will have multiple stages with a couple of different major reports that I’ll be working on over the next couple years, and then there will be one big visit probably about 18 months from now. And then we’ll become separately accredited.

ES: What do you personally work on with accreditation?

TC: I oversee all of it. As an example, over a year ago KGI was up for reaccreditation. One of the principles of accrediting agencies is that there is a cycle under which every institution has to be reaccredited. That process requires a detailed report with evidence showing that everything you said about yourself is true, and then a team of peers comes and visits after they read that report. They come with questions and want to understand how it all works. There’s a set of standards and they want to make sure that you meet all standards. So KGI was up for reaccreditation, and I am their accrediting liaison officer so I chaired their self study and the creation of their report and preparation for the visit. I worked with a team of people at Minerva and at Claremont and wrote an outline of this report, decided who should be involved in drafting each section, what evidence they should produce, edited it, prepared them for the visit, and was there for the visit.

That’s what a normal accreditation process looks like. We have to go through that now to get separate accreditation, only it’s more complicated because we are not applying for reaccreditation. We’ll have to do two reports and have at least one visit. The standards cover everything from your curriculum and your faculty to how you assess student learning, what proportion of people graduate and get jobs or go onto grad school, and the business side to make sure that we’re financially stable.

Teri and her son at the beach in Spain.

ES: Why did you decide to work for Minerva?

TC: I met Ben Nelson in September 2012, just as he was getting started. He had gone into the WASC office to learn how to become accredited, and I had just stopped working there. The person he met with told him to talk to me, so we had lunch and he offered me a job on the spot. He did that because as an executive vice president I had been the person that had helped figure out what to do with these new institutions that were starting up, so I had the expertise to help him find a partner and make a relationship that WASC would support.

The reason I wanted to work for Minerva was that, as the executive vice president at WASC, I was always reading about innovation in higher education and we were seeing it on the ground: institutions that were accredited trying to offer new delivery systems, online remote learning and branch campuses, all this stuff was going on, there was lots of disruption and new things being tried. I was the one who tried to figure out what to do with them when we got an institution that wanted us to approve something.

I had read about Minerva, I’d read about Ben getting his first round of funding and his basic principles: that it was going to be global, it was going to be very rigorous, it was going to have an international student body, it was going to have an entirely reinvisioned curriculum that prepared people for jobs that hadn’t even been invented yet, and it was going to be affordable. A lot of the things he was trying to do had been trouble spots in higher education: it was too expensive, students didn’t learn things that made them employable, and a lot of institutions have very low graduation rates. Everything that he was doing seemed like it would address all those problems.

That’s why I signed on, because I believed in the mission of what he was trying to do and the aspects of the model that made it an impactful, innovative institution. I also liked the idea that he wanted to not just build a great institution but reform higher education, he wanted people outside of Minerva to see what we were doing and learn from it. I was also really impressed with all the people that he hired like Dr. Kosslyn who I thought was an inspired choice and of course Dean Chandler, just really impressive people. It’s very important to me to work with a group of people who are really dedicated and student-centered.

ES: Why did you leave your job at WASC?.

TC: I really missed doing something that more directly impacted students. As an accreditor, you can only affect the quality of what institutions do and their impact on students through recommendations that the teams make. So I was having an important impact at a high level but not really at a day-to-day kind of level. I wanted to work in a place with a very collaborative team that was dedicated to serving students day in and day out.

There were lots of times when I thought, “How are we ever going to do this?” But we always managed to figure out a way.

ES: What were the early days of Minerva like?

TC: It was really fun and it was really hard. It was hard because you don’t know until you do something how complicated it’s going to be. For example, we really didn’t know how hard it would be to get students from all over the world visas to travel to seven countries. Although the model looks simple at the highest level, it’s very complicated in the trenches. It was challenging and we were making it up as we went.  

There are a whole set of questions we didn’t even know to ask when we first started: What kind of visa? Do we need a visa partner? Can we get it directly from the government? Do we need a consultant? Do we need to have a legal entity in the state? Likewise with housing: How are we going to find a place to house 150 students for only 4 months out of the year? Who’s going to do that for us? What kind of housing is the right housing? How do we make sure students have a place to cook? I’ve been in higher education for more than 40 years, and I’ve never done anything like this. There were lots of times when I thought, “How are we ever going to do this?” But we always managed to figure out a way.

ES: What is your favorite memory from Minerva?

TC: I do love meeting the new students when they come in. We’re intentional in Minerva about everything that we do, and it feels like our students, almost 100 percent of them, are very intentional about coming to Minerva. You really have to pick Minerva, it’s not like you could mix us up with USC or Cambridge. It feels to me like the students are a very special group of people who want to study with a global student body, who want to be challenged academically, who want gain from the experience of living in all these different places. They come in with an affinity for one another even if they don’t know one another. Freshmen come in and are so excited and it feels like they’re so ready and so poised to do something great for the next four years. That’s very exciting for me.

My other happy moments are mostly about seeing a student’s development. Sometimes a student will struggle and for whatever reason I am involved as a mentor or somebody who’s dealing with a problem a student has, and then I see them overcome it and excel. I find that really rewarding. My best moments are when I hear about a student getting into a fabulous grad school or I read a paper that a student has written.

With the senior class especially, I’ve known them since they started and I love seeing them ready to go out into the world and how accomplished they are, how hard they’ve worked on their capstones, how smart and creative they’ve been, and how meaningful their projects are. Anyone who’s an educator would tell you that the happiest moments have to do with seeing students achieve what they wanted to achieve when they came here.

I do love meeting the new students when they come in. We’re intentional in Minerva about everything that we do, and it feels like our students, almost 100 percent of them, are very intentional about coming to Minerva.

ES: Any other memories or things about you you would want to share?

TC: It might be interesting for students to know a little bit more about my background. I was a first generation college student. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and were very poor as young people. They got married right before World War 2 and my dad was in the army. They ended up having a family of five kids, so I grew up with four brothers. I was the first one to go to college and graduate and I was the first lawyer in my family.

As a woman trying to make my way as a professional, I was almost always surrounded by men and it was challenging in the 70s and 80s. We’ve made a lot of progress since then. It’s still not perfect, but that was hard. When I was in my first job in legal education, I was the only woman in a team of five of us; the other four were men and they were all about 35-40 years older than me. A lot of my early career was like that, so some of the work that I’ve done in more of a lawyer capacity had to do with diversity equity and inclusion.

One of the things that I did that I’m most proud of was serving as the chair of a state bar commission on access and fairness. We worked on a diversity pipeline to bring more underrepresented groups into the legal profession and make sure that they have opportunities to go to the highest levels of it. I helped start a law academy at a high school in a poor neighborhood so students could learn what it’s like to be a lawyer. We also created pathways for students to go from community college to four year college and law school. Then once people got in we worked on glass ceilings issues, we did workshops for people who wanted to become judges, we did workshops for people of color, those kinds of things. I did that for three years shortly before I came to  Minerva, along with work in ethics.

ES: What initially drew you to the fields of law and education?

TC: Because my family was not a well educated family, I didn’t understand what a lawyer was at first. When I was in junior high school they had an event called Girl’s Day where girls were encouraged to identify a career that they might want to go into, this was like in 1965, and then the school placed them for the day with a person who was doing that kind of work. For some reason I put down judge, so I spent the day on the bench with a judge, and I thought, this is cool, you can really have a big impact on people’s lives from here. It opened up the possibility of becoming a lawyer.

When I went to undergrad I majored in political science but I specialized in constitutional law and policy issues, and when I got out I felt that I would go into either education or law. I decided I would take the LSAT and see if I could get a good enough score to go to a good law school. I had to support myself through law school, and undergrad, completely on my own. I got a good LSAT score and worked my way through all my years of schooling. Dean Chandler also worked her way through school and she had two kids, so she makes my story sound like nothing.

But I always loved both education and law. I saw education as an equalizer and as the thing that would give people the opportunity to be more fully realized as humans. And I saw law as the same kind of tool, because of the law things can be just in the world. It was really all about social justice for me and that was the reason I was interested in both law and education.

There’s always going to be people with more money than you and people with less money than you. What we have to do is create a culture and environment where that doesn’t matter and students who don’t have those challenges are compassionate towards students who do.

ES: How has your own background of having to work through school affected your work with student affairs, especially because the Minerva community has talked about financial inequality so much this semester?

TC: I know how hard it is to work your way through school and I think it’s harder now because it’s gotten more expensive. I could afford to pay my law school tuition, but I had a good job that I worked full time and I worked at night. I know it can be really scary and challenging to work through school, and I definitely know what it’s like to be one of the kids that can’t go out and do the things that kids with more money can do, I was in that spot a lot.

But I also know it can be done. I know what it takes to manage your time and your money. I would like us to be able to help people figure out how they can do it and live within their needs. I also want us to be  able to figure out how all students can be sensitized to these issues of socioeconomic disparities. We can’t stop that in Minerva, it’s part of life, there’s always going to be people with more money than you and people with less money than you. What we have to do is create a culture and environment where that doesn’t matter and students who don’t have those challenges are compassionate towards students who do.

ES: What would most students be surprised to learn about you?

TC: I don’t know because it’s so hard to know how you’re perceived by students. Maybe how much I love my dog? I have a beautiful dog, he’s an Australian shepherd, his name is Murphy, and he’s black and white and he’s very cute. I’ll show you a picture. [She did show me a picture, and Murphy is very cute.] He has one black eye and one white eye, and he even has white eyelashes on that side. He’s about 60 pounds and he’s very energetic and wonderful. He’s actually a part of my exercise program, during the week I walk him three miles and during the weekends I walk him five miles a day. So we have fun and he cuddles with me at night and I love him.