Prism Magazine September 2001



A First Class Partnership

- By Alvin P. Sanoff


This is 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.

When the 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.

The initial 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.

They faced 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 code.

The 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.

But would 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.

Before Nolan 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.

Shortly 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.

About 10 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?'"



Just as 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.

Admissions 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.

The weekends 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 that opportunity.

Equally 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.

Nolan expected 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.

Later the 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 the conversation.

In mid-March, 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 dorm—not a good way to launch a school. He and his colleagues decided to admit 30 and then go to the waiting list as needed.

The 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 list—a total of 36—would 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 admission—15 men and 15 women—28 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.

The quality 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.



Certainly, 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.”

King cites 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.”

What King, 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.”


Alvin P. Sanoff is a writer and higher education consultant in suburban Washington, D.C.