ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Creating a Masterpiece at Olin Collegeillustration by Art Valero
Can a new school with plenty of money and a first-rate team with big ideas actually alter the landscape of engineering education?

By Alvin P. Sanoff

It's the college that doesn't exist yet, a new undergraduate school of engineering that still remains more dream than reality. But a year from now, if all goes according to plan, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, one of the boldest experiments in American higher education in decades, will move from abstraction to actuality. Four buildings will be near completion, an initial group of students will be enrolled, and the development of the curriculum, governance structure, and other basics will be well under way.

Between now and then much remains to be done. But that is not surprising. After all, it isn't every day that you start a college from scratch, let alone one whose ambition is to offer a new paradigm for undergraduate engineering education by establishing an institution without academic departments, and one in which engineering and entrepreneurship are melded together. "This is an opportunity that comes along less than once in a lifetime," says Provost David Kerns, who, along with his wife Sherra Kerns, was lured away from Vanderbilt University's engineering school to be part of Olin's leadership.

The Olin Colllege leadership team breaks ground for the new school, near Boston

Digging In: The Olin Colllege leadership team breaks ground for the new school, near Boston.

Building an institution with such lofty ambitions is precisely what the trustees of the F.W. Olin Foundation envisioned when they decided three years ago to provide the funding for a new undergraduate engineering college. Since its inception in 1938, the foundation had funded 72 buildings at colleges and universities around the nation. Now, the board of trustees felt, the time had come to do something that would have greater impact, something that would serve as the ultimate memorial to Franklin W. Olin, the engineer and entrepreneur who created the foundation. The board was willing to commit at least $300 million--more if needed--to build a college that would chart a new path for undergraduate engineering education.

Lawence Milas, president of the foundation and the driving force behind the college, says that the foundation has more than $500 million in assets and, if necessary, will spend every last dollar on the new school. "We are not going to try to economize," he says. "We want to give the college the resources it needs to excel. If that takes all of our resources, so be it." To prove that the foundation has no intention of skimping, Milas is offering Olin students a tuition-free education. Students also will not have to pay for housing. They will be responsible only for food, books, and incidental expenses.

Multiple Choice

Before deciding to establish an independent college of engineering, the foundation's board considered two other possibilities. One option: start an engineering school at an established, high-quality university. But the board feared that an engineering school in an established university would always be competing for resources with other schools at the institution. The second option: provide support to an existing engineering school that was doing a good job but lacked adequate financial resources. Ultimately, the board scrapped both ideas, concluding that it preferred to build a college from the ground up. While that was the most costly choice, it held out the greatest promise. There would be no institutional constraints standing in the way of innovation, and no faculty with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo with which to contend.

Having made that choice, board members had to decide where to locate the college. They began conversations with Babson College, a specialty business institution located in suburban Boston that is internationally known for its entrepreneurship programs. An alliance with Babson was appealing because it offered the opportunity to expose engineers to training in business and, more specifically, to entrepreneurship, in keeping with the legacy of Franklin W. Olin (see sidebar). Moreover, Babson had ample land on which to build, and was located near Boston's high-tech corridor, Route 128. The foundation struck a deal with Babson to purchase 70 acres, and in June of 1997 announced establishment of the college.

"All along we envisioned a collaborative arrangement with another college," explains Milas. "We were taken by the model of the Claremont Colleges--separate freestanding colleges that collaborate. That model expands opportunities for students and provides cost savings for institutions. By being next door to Babson, we will be able to tap into existing facilities.

We don't need to build an athletic center, since they have one. We can use their library for non-engineering needs. Babson is number-one ranked in entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship is the hottest thing in engineering education."

Building a Team

The board next faced the challenge of putting together a leadership team that could create a college that would shatter the traditional mold for engineering education. Drawing on the ideas of the National Science Foundation and corporate leaders, the board felt that the new school should include not only a heavy dose of training in entrepreneurship but also an interdisciplinary approach to learning. There would be no academic departments--the idea was to integrate knowledge by avoiding artificial boundaries. The board also wanted the college to place a premium on students working in teams and to stress development of communications skills. Building such an institution, the board felt, required educators who loved a challenge and were not bound by academic convention.

Milas began searching for a president of the college and settled on Richard Miller, dean of engineering at the University of Iowa, where he had created a center for entrepreneurship studies that was jointly run by the engineering, business, and medical schools. Miller was contacted by the foundation's trustees right after he had turned down the presidency of a graduate engineering institution. A major difference between the job he rejected and the Olin post, says Miller, is that "Olin offered a presidency where external fund-raising was not a main part of the job. I could focus on getting things right."

"We are not going to try to economize. We want to give the college the resources it needs to excel.
If that takes all of our resources,
so be it."

    Lawrence Milas,
    president of the Olin Foundation

The board hired Miller in February of last year, and within a matter of months he had brought on board David Kerns as provost and Sherra Kerns as vice president for innovation and research. At Vanderbilt, he had held a chair in engineering management and had been a professor of electrical engineering; she was former chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Consortium for Research and Electronics in Space. Miller also lured away Duncan Murdoch from the University of Southern California to become vice president for external relations and enrollment. Murdoch, one of the most creative marketers in American higher education, had previously served as dean of admission at two engineering institutions, Harvey Mudd College and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Miller's team also includes Stephen Hannabury, a former executive at Boston University's School of Management, who is vice president for administration and finance, and Charles Nolan, who moved from admission dean at Babson to the same post at Olin.

Once hired, the members of the team began to flesh out what was still a somewhat general concept for the Olin school. They settled on a design for the campus, oversaw the start of construction, developed a strategy and materials for recruiting students, and started to hire faculty--attracting professors from such institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The college will hire a dozen faculty members this year, with another eight to 10 brought on board by the fall of 2001. There has been no dearth of applicants from which to choose the founding faculty. As of mid-summer, the college had received almost 1,300 applications for a faculty that will eventually number about 60 members. Those faculty members who have already been hired will spend the 2000-2001 academic year on such tasks as developing the curriculum and deciding on what blend of teaching methods to use. They will consider such methods as tutorials, asynchronous learning, and project-based learning, and may even develop new methods of their own. "The way for us to have an impact is to be the incubator for the best practices in engineering education and then to have those practices spread to every place we can find," says Sherra Kerns.

Tossing Tenure Aside

The faculty will also decide what criteria will be used to evaluate their performance and that of their colleagues. It is unlikely, for example, that the Olin school will have a traditional tenure system. Instead, the current thinking is that faculty members will have five-year contracts. Whether a contract is renewed would be determined by peer review. "We hope to create a system that is better than the tenure system,'' says David Kearns. "We want a system in which the faculty are treated fairly, but we also want to create a culture of continuous improvement," something not always fostered by tenure.

Olin's new faculty members welcome the prospect of teaching at an institution that is determined not to be bound by tradition. Daniel Frey, who came to Olin from MIT, where he was an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, is enthusiastic about the fact that Olin will have no formal departments and no tenure. Speaking scornfully of tenure, he says that "any system where there is no consequence for negative performance is fundamentally unjust."

Frey, like all newly hired Olin faculty, is passionate about teaching undergraduates. In only his second year on the MIT faculty, he won an award given to the outstanding undergraduate teacher. His colleagues at MIT tried to persuade him that it was imprudent to leave for an institution that did not yet exist. "They thought I was nuts to go to Olin," says Frey. "The head of my department told me that I would not have graduate students to work with. But when you work with a substantial number of graduate students you are really a manager of research, you are not doing the research. You don't have that 'aha!' moment when you make a discovery." So, Frey opted to take his chances and move to Olin.

Lynn Andrea Stein is another MIT refugee--she was an associate professor of computer science--who has joined the Olin faculty. Stein, a pioneer in developing a new approach to teaching computer science, says that at MIT her work did not fit into the established "disciplinary pigeonholes." At Olin, she will not have to fit into the conventional pigeonholes of academic research because there will not be departmental boundaries. While Stein feels that the college "offers an unprecedented opportunity to build something whose values I believe in," she, nonetheless, admits that her decision to join the faculty is not without risk: "My husband describes Olin as 'a start-up without stock options.'"

For Stein and others who have signed on to the faculty, the prospect of being an academic trailblazer outweighs any concern they might have about the institution's viability. The substantial assets of the Olin Foundation, while not guaranteeing the college's long-term future, certainly provide a large safety net.

Will They Come?

It is less clear how prospective students will react to the idea of enrolling in an institution with no track record and no name recognition. Certainly, the fact that Olin offers free tuition and housing will prove a powerful draw to some. But the type of students Olin wants to enroll--those with SAT scores of 1350 or better and with grade point averages of 3.5 or higher in a demanding academic program--will also be attractive to MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, and other prestigious institutions. "We're looking for kids who are courageous enough to turn down the Cal Techs of the world in order to be part of history," says dean of admission Charles Nolan. "If students and parents need prestige and the name brand of a top engineering school, then that's where they ought to go."

There is no question that a number of top students will opt for the known over the unknown. Lisa Montgomery, director of college counseling at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and a member of an advisory board of college counselors put together by admission dean Nolan, says that "the free ride that Olin is offering will not do the trick for many students and families. To say 'no' to an MIT or a Stanford involves a serious opportunity cost" and many families will be unwilling to take the chance until the college is established. But she anticipates that there are enough such talented youngsters to fill Olin's classes.

The college's leadership knows that it will take a special kind of student to make the plunge. The recruitment materials put together by marketing guru Duncan Murdoch reflect that. One brochure opens with a picture of a bungee jumper and contains a number of other photos showing people engaged in such dangerous pursuits as scaling a glacier and racing in the Indianapolis 500. The message: Olin is looking for risk takers.

Olin's leaders realize that many high-school students and college counselors will be watching carefully when the college opens its doors, so they cannot afford any major glitches. Worried that the first four buildings on campus--eventually there will be eight structures--would not be ready for occupancy by next September, and that major curricular decisions would not be completed, the leadership decided to enroll the first class in September 2002, a year later than planned. That class will contain between 80 and 100 students. Eventually, Olin expects to have an undergraduate student body of about 650, evenly balanced between men and women--no mean feat in a discipline that has traditionally been dominated by males.

Instead of bringing in a full complement of students next September, Olin will enroll 25 "partners"--students who will work with the faculty and administration to shape the curriculum and develop policies and procedures that will govern student life. In addition, these students will hold internships, attend a leadership institute, and have the opportunity to travel. They will receive a stipend and have their living costs covered. In effect, they will spend five years at Olin instead of the usual four. In return, they will be given an opportunity few undergraduates have--the opportunity to help create an institution.

It is an opportunity that they share with the leaders of the college. As Olin's leaders look to the year ahead, they can see many challenges looming. Developing the curriculum, bringing in the first wave of students, and hiring more faculty are only the most obvious ones. As with any new undertaking, challenges will crop up that they could never have anticipated. How they deal with the challenges, both those they can anticipate and those that will be thrust upon them, will go a long way toward determining the ultimate fate of the college. In many respects, the Olin team is like a painter sitting in front of a blank canvas. The team members know what they want to put on the canvas, but as their work progresses the original concept is almost certain to evolve. It will be years before they truly know whether they have produced a masterpiece or something more mundane.


Al Sanoff is a higher-education consultant
and freelance writer in suburban Washington, D.C.

Who is F.W. Olin?