College from the ground up

From bricks and mortar to faculty and students, it takes a lot to builda new school. First in a series.

In a frosty November morning, Alexandra Dew is rummaging in her car trunk for the right brochure to persuade high school guidance counselors their seniors should apply to "a college that doesn't exist."

Her first weeks of selling the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass., have been a little tricky. Olin hasn't been built yet, has no faculty or students, and is not accredited.

"I always call weeks ahead," she says. "But sometimes I get there and say 'Hi, I'm from Olin College,' and they look at me like I have three heads."

Recognition is just one hurdle facing one of the few independent engineering colleges to be built from scratch in decades. Starting a new college, let alone one focused on engineering, is a grand vision for a market already saturated with colleges and universities. The Boston area is home to dozens of schools, including some of the biggest names in higher education, like engineering heavy-weight Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition, parents and students alike put a high priority on a brand-name degree these days, something that a school achieves only over time.

But the handful of PhDs trying to get Olin off the ground by September 2001 are confident in their product. They aim to offer students something they can't get from existing programs: An education that gets them building things the moment they walk through the door.

After pitching Olin to 30 high schools in three weeks, it's a concept Ms. Dew easily synthesizes: "We won't do much civil engineering - it's more the robots-and-gadgets side of things. And we'll have a partnership with our neighbor, Babson College, to teach entrepreneurship - so Olin grads will know how to market what they invent."

The idea for Olin grew out of the demand by business for more well-rounded engineers. It is also to a response to the science community's call for changes in the way engineering is taught.

Current approaches were largely shaped after World War II, when the country was focused on defense. The "boot-camp approach" to teaching, educators say, washes away huge numbers of students. Only 1 in 5 students who declare an engineering major get a degree in it. But when its first class graduates in 2005, Olin hopes to deliver well-prepared students into a high-tech economy where they are in demand.

"We have only one chance to get it right from the beginning," says Richard Miller, Olin's president of 11 months, an aerospace engineer by training. Though he sees a niche for what Olin is offering (see story, left), he admits that creating a school from bottom to top is a Sisyphean task akin to "building an airplane while it's flying."

To supply the kind of know-how the US needs will take a different type of education, says Lawrence Milas, chairman of the Franklin W. Olin Foundation, which regularly donates new buildings to schools, especially engineering buildings.

In 1995, the National Science Foundation and others were calling for "broad structural and cultural, rather than incremental changes" in undergraduate engineering. So Mr. Milas and the foundation decided to go outside established schools. They chose a risky, but fresh approach, earmarking $300 million-plus to build and endow a fledgling institution.

Most attention-getting of all is their offer to cover tuition and room costs for the school's expected 650 students for at least a decade.

"Sure we wondered, 'Are we crazy, does the world need another engineering college?' " Milas says.

"It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give $100 million to a small university to start an engineering school," he continues. "But gradually it became clear to us that there was a singular, once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a school without any baggage."

Engineering and entrepreneurship

What administrators hope to create in Needham is a school that integrates engineering and entrepreneurship; where teamwork on problem solving, not toiling in isolation, is typical. Developing writing and speaking skills will be a priority.

William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering in Washington says the Olin experiment will contribute greatly if it can help break the traditional school-of-hard-knocks mind-set of engineering education.

Even though the NSF, the Engineering Deans Council and the National Research Council in the mid-1990s all called for overhaul, "there is still an urgent need for change," Dr. Wulf says.

"You see points of light here and there, but most schools still use the boot-camp model," he says. "Two years of the hard stuff before they let you do any real engineering. The center of gravity of engineering education has not moved very much."

Not without risks

Others in the field, while supportive of the school's goals, say creating a new school is not without risks.

"Starting up a college from scratch is daunting, but starting up an engineering college is almost unimaginable," says Jack Wilson, a professor of engineering and former provost at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

"Even if you snap your fingers and recruit a world-class faculty, which in this marketplace is tremendously difficult, the key thing is a world-class student body," Dr. Wilson says. "Olin is creating something special. But recruiting those students is going to be tough."

Recruiting faculty could easily pose a challenge. Olin will begin the search in January. But higher education already has a shortage caused in part by the computer and other high-tech industries that have drawn experts out of academia with large salaries.

George Peterson, executive director of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology in Baltimore, says Olin is the only independent engineering school to be built from scratch in the nation in his memory. Most new engineering programs are additions to existing ones - or are added to a university or school, he says. Olin will have to wait until it graduates its first class in 2005 before it can be accredited.

But besides logistics and cost there's another reason independent engineering colleges don't just pop up: the glut of programs. The number of seats in engineering schools is growing -but fewer students are enrolling to fill them. And that overcapacity may get worse.

In 1990, there were 1,410 accredited engineering programs at 288 institutions. A decade later there are 160 additional accredited programs and 37 more engineering institutions, according to the Accreditation Board. (Almost all of the latter group were affiliated with existing institutions - unlike go-it-alone Olin.)

Meanwhile, the number of freshmen who major in engineering has fallen about 19 percent in the decade since the last peak in 1986. And the number who actually earn bachelor's degrees fell 17.5 percent in the same period.

Still, Wilson and others offer encouragement and say Olin's seemingly quixotic goal may be doable.

"There are a lot of faculty members out there that might like to join Olin because of the challenge - or are looking to get out from under the old-fashioned approach," says James Tracey, dean of engineering at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

Mr. Tracey oversaw the construction and creation of Rowan's new engineering program that will graduate its first crop of seniors next spring. Despite major challenges, it hasn't been "as difficult as we thought it might be to recruit good faculty."

Key selling point: a free ride

Olin may also have a fighting chance to recruit top students, despite intense competition from big name schools. It is already courting potential freshmen -or the people who know them - with one of its best selling points: an essentially free education. Four years of education valued at more than $100,000, all paid by the Olin Foundation.

It's something that's drawing people puzzled by the unfamiliar name to consider the school more seriously.

"That kind of takes my breath away! How long do you expect that to continue?" says Dorothea O'Connell, a guidance counselor Dew visited at Dover-Sherborn Regional High School in Dover, Mass.

It's all in the marketing

With juggernauts like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others in Boston, why would a student with 1400 on the SAT pass up MIT for Olin? Olin's offer of a free ride is enticing, but is it enough to lure students away from well-known schools that might also offer attractive aid packages?

In an attempt to tickle the curiosity of the kind of clever, independent student the school is after, Duncan Murdoch, Olin's vice president of enrollment, pushes a self-deprecating approach to marketing. A brochure for the school depicts a circle-with-a-slash directly over the center building. "You can't apply to our college..." it says at the top, then on an inside flap, "... because we don't exist yet."

It's aimed at seniors who have already accepted a slot at another top university. "Don't toss this flier!" it urges. "We're counting on you to pass it on to the 10th-grader who ruins the [grading] curve in your AP physics class or the kid next door whose eighth-grade science project is 'patent pending.'"

Also arriving in the mailboxes of high-schoolers early next year will be another Olin brochure -a little flip file hung together with an aluminum screw. Each page will detail one of "Seven reasons you should apply to an engineering college that doesn't exist yet."

And instead of the standard beauty-shot of an idyllic campus, a poster is in the works showing a construction sight and offering a "hard-hat tour" if they come out to see the school.

Olin officials are hoping this offbeat approach could start a student buzz, like: "Hey, check out this crazy brochure," Mr. Murdoch says. That's the theory at least.

More work to be done

Right now, Olin has many more things to worry about than attracting good faculty and students -like the gas conduit that needs to be moved from the middle of campus, and a host of other structural issues. There's the rugby field that needs relocating. And neighbors worried about the voluminous digging need to be placated.

So far, the college's assets include only a few computers, some rented office furniture, an old house being renovated as a temporary office, and a swath of freshly bulldozed ground on 70 wooded acres purchased from neighbor Babson College, which is also loaning office space. Physically, Olin is today just a bare patch on a wooded hillside.

But Miller isn't daunted by this process; he's been through it before. He created a cutting-edge entrepreneurial engineering program while at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. And not unlike the aircraft structures he's designed during his life, this college, too, will be a work of inspiration as well as technical ingenuity.

On a winter afternoon, Olin's new president strides across the churned hillside where his campus will be one day. He pauses, the toe of his wing-tip shoes pushing against an upturned tree root. It's a long way from the University of Iowa.

He talks of the sacrifices his family made, especially his two young children, in leaving their Iowa friends. And his biggest challenge: too many great ideas all at once - what he calls: "massive opportunity overload." Yet things are getting better since hiring a provost, dean of admissions, and others - so his 16-hour days are getting more sane.

Miller and his dozen new hires are looking ahead. Two years from now they envision the first Olin class of 50 to 100 freshmen overachievers strolling across a manicured lawn to high-tech dorms and labs.

Freshmen will dive in on real-life engineering problems from their first class, Miller says. Professors will have to be top quality researchers, but committed to teaching. There will be no classes taught by teaching assistants, he says.

And he hopes Olin will stand out among engineering programs in one other respect: by having more women.

"We can't have a good old boys club here. That would send the wrong message," he says. "We're going to do everything we can to attract women. I don't know how we're going to get them. But we're going to pull out all the stops."

At the heart of it all, though, Miller says is the inspiration of trying to design something new.

"We've got a long way to go," he says, glancing across the line of trees where a college will one day be. "But we'll make it."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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