By Alvin P. Sanoff
OLIN COLLEGE REALIZED IT COULDN'T OPEN AS SCHEDULED, IT DEVISED
A UNIQUE PLAN--ADMIT 30 STUDENTS TO HELP SHAPE THE NEW ENGINEERING
the second in an occasional series on the launching of the Franklin
W. Olin College of Engineering. The first article appeared in
the September 2000 issue.
board of the F.W. Olin Foundation decided in 1997 to provide at
least $300 million to start an innovative college of engineering,
the founders could not have imagined just how mold-shattering
the school would be. They wanted to establish an institution without
either academic departments or tenure, a place that took an interdisciplinary
approach to education and offered a curriculum that stressed teamwork
and included a heavy dose of entrepreneurship. However, they never
contemplated the possibility that the school would begin life
not with a traditional freshman class but with a pioneering group
of 30 students called "Olin partners," who would join faculty
and administrators in helping to shape the higher education start-up.
blueprint called for the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
to open in the 2001- 2002
academic year with an entering class of 80 to 100 freshmen; enrollment
would eventually total 650. But then reality intervened. Construction
of the 70-acre campus in the Boston suburbs moved more slowly
than anticipated and in February of 2000, about 18 months before
the first class was to report, administrators realized that if
they stuck to their plans they would end up enrolling students
whom they could neither house nor teach because dormitory and
classroom buildings would not be completed on time.
a potential crisis. Brochures recruiting students had already
been printed. A national advisory council of high school counselors
had been formed. The word had gone out to the high school community
that Olin would be open for business in September of 2001. To
delay opening for a year could undermine the credibility of the
institution even before it admitted its first student. After several
months of discussion, Dean of Admissions Charles Nolan came up
with a novel idea. Admit a small group of students who, in effect,
would serve as beta testers for the college. The students would
work with faculty to help develop the curriculum and with administrators
to determine the nature of student life on campus. They would,
for example, decide whether Olin would operate under an honor
idea of having students play a central role in shaping the college
was certainly in keeping with the idea that Olin would be an innovative
engineering school. And it would work from a logistical standpoint,
since the school could house a small group of students in modular
facilities while the campus was being built. Group meetings could
be held in rooms on the adjoining campus of Babson College, a
respected business school, from which Olin had purchased the land
for its campus.
enough students be interested in taking part in such an unconventional
venture, especially students with the academic credentials Olin
wanted--SAT's of at least 1350 and grade point averages of 3.5
or higher in a demanding academic program? The only way to find
out was to recruit like mad and hope that the concept of helping
to build an institution from scratch would so spark the imaginations
of gifted students that they would be willing to spend an extra
year of their lives in college. The "partners" would not earn
academic credit for the time spent developing the school. After
serving as beta testers, they would become members of Olin's first
freshman class, which would enroll in September of 2002.
and his admissions team began to woo potential partners, they
had to decide what to do with $45,000 worth of brochures that
had been written to recruit a freshman class for September 2001.
Instead of scrapping the brochures, Nolan and vice president for
external relations and enrollment Duncan Murdoch decided that
Nolan would write a note asking students if they wanted to be
part of an experiment in inventing a new college. The note was
put on "Post-it" paper, so it could be stuck on the front of the
brochures, which were sent in late June to 30,000 rising seniors
whose academic profiles met Olin's criteria. The mailing generated
3,000 inquiries, which was heartening to the Olin staff, given
that they were months behind other colleges and universities in
contacting potential applicants.
after the mailing went out, Nolan, Murdoch and the rest of the
admissions team took to the road to sell high school counselors
and students on the "Olin partner" concept. They visited some
200 high schools around the country, concentrating on math and
science magnets. They held breakfasts for counselors in a number
of cities and interviewed students at sites in some 30 metropolitan
areas. They invited students to engage in a dialogue with them
via e-mail and telephone, and then they waited anxiously for applications
to come in.
days before the January deadline they had only about 25 applications
in hand. "Everybody played at being optimistic," recalls Murdoch,
"but we began to ask: 'What is our contingency plan?'"
panic was beginning to set in, the applications started to pour
in. The school received some 300 applications in the two days
before the deadline. In retrospect, Nolan speculates that because
Olin had required that students apply online, this threw off the
normal application flow and resulted in the last minute flood.
In the end, the school had 664 applicants for its 30 slots, many
of them with the kind of credentials Olin was seeking.
staff members went over the applications and identified 125 students
who especially interested them. They looked for students who not
only had strong academic records but also had demonstrated leadership
ability and had shown a passion for some activity. What the activity
was did not matter; it was the passion that counted. The 125 students
were invited to visit the campus--actually the Babson campus since
Olin's was under construction--on one of two weekends in March
for two days of activities and interviews.
were part of Olin's strategy of making the admissions process
as personal as possible. The two-day visit gave the students the
opportunity to get to know the Olin faculty and staff, who had
been hired from such institutions as the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and Vanderbilt, and to see who else was applying
to an engineering school that did not exist yet. Students considering
an MIT or a Cal Tech can visit the schools to get a flavor of
the kind of students who are enrolled. But at a start-up there
is no such opportunity. The weekend visit was designed to provide
important, the weekends gave the Olin staff a chance to evaluate
the students, particularly how they handled themselves in one-on-one
interviews and in team-building activities. Since the Olin partners
would be part of a close-knit group, their ability to work well
with others was considered critical.
about 80 students to accept the invitation. He was way off the
mark. One hundred and sixteen of the 125 invitees said "yes."
During each of the two weekends--56 students came on the first
weekend and 60 on the second--the students were first divided
into teams of five or six, given several pieces of Styrofoam and
a set of tools and asked to build the tallest Styrofoam tower
possible. The activity was designed to break the ice and to see
how well students worked as part of a team.
students were interviewed individually, and then they took part
in a second, and critically important, group exercise. This time,
groups of five or six students were asked to present their ideas
on student life at Olin. Each student talked about a specific
topic chosen from a list of 10. Every group was observed by two
Olin officials. Some students doomed their prospects by being
too aggressive. An administrator observing one group cited a student
who "tried to demonstrate leadership by speaking a lot and turning
up the volume." Other students enhanced their chances by being
assertive without being obnoxious. Olin wanted "partners" who
showed leadership ability, but who did not insist on dominating
after having had the opportunity to observe and interview all
116 students, the admissions committee met to decide who would
be offered the chance to be an Olin partner. Initial plans called
for admitting a total of 50, half of them men and half women,
consistent with Olin's goal of having a student body evenly divided
between the sexes. Nolan believed that between 25 and 30 of the
50 would enroll; any shortfall could be dealt with by taking students
off a waiting list. But Nolan decided to scrap that plan because
he sensed enormous enthusiasm for Olin among the students who
had visited. Nolan feared that if the school admitted 50, it could
very well end up with more than the 30 students it could accommodate
in its makeshift temporary dormnot a good way to launch
a school. He and his colleagues decided to admit 30 and then go
to the waiting list as needed.
admissions staff then made another bold decision. Nolan and his
colleagues were so impressed with the students they had met during
the two weekends that they decided that all the students placed
on the waiting lista total of 36would be offered the
opportunity to be virtual Olin partners, members of
the first full class entering in September 2002. The only proviso:
they had to provide an acceptable plan detailing how they would
spend the next 12 months.
As it turned
out, the moves to limit the number of students admitted and to
create virtual Olin partners proved to be masterstrokes.
Of the 30 students offered admission15 men and 15 women28
accepted, an unprecedented yield of 93 percent. And 16 of the
students placed on the waiting list opted to be part of next fall's
entering class. The enthusiasm among the students had proven to
be even greater than the staff had anticipated.
of the students was remarkable. I was surprised at our success
in attracting a high proportion of kids who could go anywhere,
says Duncan Murdoch. The 30 partners had an average
SAT score above 1450; they opted for Olin over some of the nation's
most venerable institutions. For example, Kathleen King, a graduate
of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, chose Olin over
MIT, while Leighton Ige, who attended Iolani School in Honolulu,
picked Olin over Harvard.
the fact that Olin students will pay no tuition and will receive
free housing made the school financially attractive, but that
was a relatively minor consideration for most of those who were
chosen. It was the chance to build an institution from scratch
and to make history that proved irresistible to King, Ige and
their peers, overriding any anxiety they felt about casting their
lot with a start-up that is not yet accredited. At Harvard
I would have had the chance to be in the three hundred sixty-fifth
entering class, says Ige. At Olin I have the chance
to be in the first.
the students she met during her March visit as a factor in her
decision. They were the kind of people I would want to go
to school with, she says. They have a wide variety
of interests and pursue them with a passion, and they were enthusiastic
about trying something new. Ige said that meeting the faculty
during his visit helped tilt the balance in Olin's favor.
They had all these ideas and they were bubbling over. They
said that at Olin I wouldn't be working on one research project,
I would be working on several. I think that's awesome.
Ige and the rest of the Olin partners also know is that if the
school falls short of expectations, they have other options. Says
King, If Olin doesn't work out, I can always go to
a more traditional institution. But none of the Olin partners
expect to be going elsewhere. Says Ige: What will make Olin
succeed is the fact that all the partners want it to work. We
won't let it fail.
P. Sanoff is a writer and higher education consultant in suburban