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25
By JonMarcus
Needham, Massachusetts
T
he students mingle shyly, carefully
turned out to look as if they don’t care how they
look. Their parents, anxious to appear as if they
aren’t watching, stare like hawks. The administrators
smile and make speeches in the shade of a yellow-
and-white-striped tent, where there is a buffet with
tofu burgers for the vegetarians. “This is the first
day of an extraordinary journey,” one reads from
his notes. It is, in short, a typical opening of the
academic year at a small New England college.
But this particular small college is far from
typical, and these are not typical students, and this is
not just another academic year. It is the first day not
only of an extraordinary journey, but of an audacious
and staggeringly expensive experiment: the creation
of the first new freestanding undergraduate
engineering college in the United States in nearly
a century, and one of the few new private U.S.
universities of any kind in decades.
Beyond the yellow-and-white-striped tent,
construction crews are scrambling to finish the
modular buildings that will temporarily house the
faculty and these first 30 students until work is completed
on the campus, which so far consists mainly of steel beams
sprouting from a suburban Boston hillside. This opening
day begins a year of
collaboration between
students, faculty and
administrators to achieve
the singular goal of starting
a brand-new university
from scratch.
When finished, these
buildings will stand as
a physical symbol, an
implicit rebuke of the
way higher education
is provided in America
today—and of the snail’s
pace at which it seems able
to change. Paid for by what
could ultimately amount to
the entire financial assets
of the FranklinW. Olin
Foundation, Olin College
is meant not only to hasten the laggard reform of engineering
education, but also to challenge many long-held practices of
traditional higher education in general.
Built next to Babson College, which specializes in
Spring 2002
An Unknown Quantity
Olin College students, faculty and administrators create an innovative new university from scratch
management and business, Olin aims to turn out business-
savvy engineers. It has a vice president of innovation and
improvement. And to avoid the male-dominated “geek”
culture of other engineering programs, at least half its
students will be women. In an attempt to remove barriers
to interdisciplinary cooperation, there will be no academic
departments (“We don’t want the chemists only to talk to
the chemists,” spokesman Joseph Hunter said). There is no
tenure. And Olin doesn’t charge tuition; each accepted student
will receive a full four-year scholarship covering tuition and
accommodations.
“If you look at tuition alone (at other universities), how
muchmore can they increase it?The whole system is a house
of cards that’s bound to collapse,” said Lawrence Milas, the
outspoken president of the Olin Foundation. “We want to be
the college that is constantly innovative, and we’re trying to
organize ourselves and develop the kind of culture that will
support that kind of innovation. And we can do it, because
we don’t have people dug into their turf afraid or resistant to
change. We can be risk-takers.”
There was enormous competition for 32 slots in the
inaugural class. The school attracted more than 3,000 inquiries
and 664 applicants; barely one in 20 was accepted. That made
Olin one of the most difficult colleges in America to get into,
even before it had a campus or a faculty or a library or a
curriculum. All of these accepted students posted standardized
test scores in the top three percent nationally, and had nearly
Olin College’s first buildings rise behind college President Richard Miller (second from left)
and students Susan Fredholm, Matt Hill and Julianna Connelly.
Olin College is
meant to hasten
the laggard reform
of engineering
education, but also
challenges many
long-held practices
of traditional
higher education
in general.
Photos by Rick Friedman, Black Star, for CrossTalk