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perfect grades. Seventeen play at least one musical instrument.
There are actors, athletes, dancers and debaters. One helped
his parents build a geodesic dome-shaped house, and restored
a vintage Volkswagen Bug while he was still in high school.
They have enough computer knowledge to run a large
company.
Their academic performance was so good, in fact, that
the incentive of free tuition probably was not a factor in the
decision of these students to apply, since most were offered full
scholarships to engineering programs at some of the nation’s
top universities and colleges. Nor were they necessarily swayed
by the fanciful self-deprecating promotional campaign that
used the genre of 1950s horror movie posters to advertise
“The CollegeThat Doesn’t Exist!”They had other reasons for
selecting Olin.
“Before I came, there was a slight bit of doubt, but
that’s true no matter where you go to college,” said Jessica
Anderson of Albuquerque, one of these first students. “When
I came to the candidate weekend and I met the faculty, the
administration, I realized they could be anywhere else doing
anything, and also saw how passionate they were about
making this place amazing. And I realized it couldn’t fail.”
Still, by the time of the scheduled opening day in late
August 2001, things had not gone entirely as planned.
Conceived byMilas in 1993, the school had received its charter
from the state of Massachusetts in 1997 and had picked a 70-
acre site on the wooded 370-acre Babson campus 12 miles
outside of Boston. (Milas is a Babson graduate). The land
was purchased fromBabson for $15 million. The foundation
had hired the college’s first employee in 1999: RichardMiller,
who was lured away fromhis job as engineering dean at the
University of Iowa to become president.
ByMarch of 2000, however, construction had yet to begin
because of design and permit problems, threatening plans
to start classes in the fall of 2001; the first shovels-full of dirt
wouldn’t be dug until August of 2000. Miller and his tiny group
of administrators were
working in the former
bedrooms, and even
attics and closets, of
a few old Colonial-
style homes that had
come with the Babson
property, looking out
over the mud that was
supposed to become
their innovative
campus.
But faculty already
had been hired, and
student recruiting had begun. Miller convened a meeting of
what he called his SWOT team, which stood for “strengths,
weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” (If Olin has adopted
one thing from traditional higher education, it is a fondness
for acronyms, although it uses themwith something of a
sense of humor.)The group decided that opening on time was
probably impossible, and agreed that the buildings weren’t the
only things that would not be ready. It would take another year
to test the curriculum.
So the SWOT team proposed that the inaugural class of
students not take classes, but spend a year helping to design
the classes they would eventually take. The students would
be housed in temporary accommodations at no charge, and
serve on committees with the faculty to plan the school’s
curriculum. And they wouldn’t be called students. They would
be called “Olin partners.” Miller said: “Nearly everyone who
thoroughly thought about this was easily persuaded by the
logic of it. It turns out to have been a major defining moment.
We were doing something that was not in the plan. And let’s
not overlook the fact that involving students in the design of
the curriculum is itself heretical” in higher education.
It was these Olin “partners” who were milling around on
the first day under the yellow-and-white-striped tent set up on
the lawn of the wooden Colonial where the president’s office
occupies an upstairs bedroom. They would spend five years
here, not four, returning in their second year as freshmen.
Some sported brightly hued hair, others conservative crew
cuts. One, MatthewHill, showed off his Frisbee skills,
balancing a disk on a finger and tossing it beneath his leg.
Another, Julianna Connelly, sang a song she wrote for the
occasion; yet another performed a ballet solo. The wife of the
vice president of external affairs sold commemorative T-shirts
for $10 at a folding table. Balloons were anchored from
cinderblocks, and there was the din of a bulldozer sculpting
some dirt into what will become the entrance to the campus.
Unlike similar scenes at other private colleges, there was no
sense of history—except for history about to be made.
“Every one of these kids turned down a full ride to
someplace else,” said JimPoisel, whose daughter, Joy, was the
valedictorian of her Indiana high school class and scored in
the top one percent on her SATs before deciding to enroll at
Olin. “If this doesn’t work out, she’s only 18 years old. I doubt
her life will be over. There are a lot worse things you can do
with your life than to come out here and be involved with this.
We raised her this way.” Poisel, a firefighter in Indiana, added:
Prospective Olin College student Frances Haugen, shown participating in an
engineering game during a campus visit, already has been accepted by MIT and
CalTech.
To avoid the
male- dominated
“geek” culture of
other engineering
programs, at least
half of Olin’s students
will be women.