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“We told her life is a risk.”
Howmuch of a risk is there really? “We have no alumni
network, no campus, no track record,” said college spokesman
Hunter. “There are going to be challenges. Failure is a
possibility, if a remote one.” Very remote, considering the fact
that the Olin Foundation has pledged its entire substantial
financial support to making the school a success.
Another pair of parents, Nancy and Ken Fredholm of
Hudson, NewHampshire, bubbled over with enthusiasm.
“My worst professor in college was tenured,” Nancy Fredholm
said in a not-so-subtle nod to Olin’s system of five-year
faculty contracts instead of tenure. “I’m so envious,” said
Ken Fredholm, himself an engineer who remembers being
educated in “large lecture halls, not like the kind of one-on-
one experience they’re going to have here. If they had had this
back then, I wouldn’t have had any hesitation about enrolling
here.”
The modular buildings that will serve as temporary
housing and offices were also behind schedule, and the
students settled into temporary space at Babson. It would be
two weeks before they could move their things into what they
quickly dubbed the “Olin trailer park”: a parking lot and two
flat-roofed buildings—bigger on the inside than they looked—
which included reception areas, laboratories, classrooms,
kitchens with perpetually brewing coffee, and folding chairs
and tables, all connected through a maze of hallways.
The students attended the usual round of orientation
mixers. At Olin this included a visit to the NewHampshire
home and office of entrepreneur and engineer Dean Kamen,
the inventor of the scooter-like Segway Human Transporter,
who showed themhis collection of antique technological
artifacts. From the college itself, each student got a FranklinW.
Olin “baseball card” encased in Lucite as a keepsake.
Raised in Vermont, Franklin Olin had only one term
of formal schooling after the age of 13, but was accepted
by Cornell, where he majored in civil engineering and
was captain of the baseball team. The founder of the Olin
Corporation, he used his personal fortune in 1938 to establish
a foundation, which has since givenmore than $300 million
to build and equip 72 buildings on 57 campuses. Building and
endowing Olin College is likely to eat up the remaining $500
million. “We said, If this thing succeeds, that’s exactly what’s
going to happen,” saidMilas, the foundation’s president. “And
right now it looks as if it’s going to succeed.”
The school’s governing board, or President’s Council, came
to the campus for a routine meeting the same weekend that
the college opened. It is an impressive and influential group
that includes John Abele, founder and director of the medical
device company Boston Scientific; Stephen Director, dean
of engineering at the University of Michigan and chairman
of the National Academy of Engineering Committee on
Engineering Education; Gregory Shelton, vice president for
engineering and technology at Raytheon; Sheri Sheppard,
professor of engineering at Stanford and an advocate for
reforming engineering education; Lee Shulman, president of
the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching;
andWilliamWulf, president of the National Academy of
Engineering.
Choosing to establish an engineering college, of all things,
was a particularly risky proposition for the Olin Foundation.
The number of accredited engineering programs has grown
steadily, from 1,410 in 1990 to 1,602 in 2000. Yet since 1985,
the number of engineering majors has declined by nearly
20 percent. “It came this way,” Milas said: “Okay, let’s start a
college. And if we’re going to do that, why not an engineering
college? Does America or the world need another engineering
college? We discovered that there was an opportunity for a
brand-new engineering college because, unlike the humanities
and maybe some other fields of knowledge, science and
engineering is a body of knowledge that is always growing and
expanding.”
It is also true that the National Science Foundation,
accrediting agencies, and other groups have been urging the
reform of engineering education
since the close of the ColdWar
by requiring instruction in team-
building, communication and
entrepreneurship, and by increasing
the number of minority and
women engineers. But at existing
engineering schools, such reforms
have been slow to be adopted.
“Major business leaders have
been asking for changes in what
engineering grads knowwhen they
leave school,” saidMiller. “And
they’re making progress, but the
progress is really slow. It has been disappointing.”
Not that Olin has yet realized all its goals. Participants at
an NSF-sponsored workshop for women academic engineers
complained that it was likely to simply reflect the existing
white male-dominated culture of engineering. And while
nearly half of the students are women, Olin has been less
successful in attracting a broad representation of minorities.
Among the first group of 62 students (the 30 original
Jessica Anderson, one of Olin’s first students, chose Olin because of “how
passionate they (the faculty) were about making this place amazing.”
When completed, the
distinctive collection of
buildings on a hilltop will
have 500,000 square
feet of space, with 27
fully networked labs and
classrooms.