A start-up president

Sitting in his tiny office, Richard Miller stares into his computer, cramming for another in an endless series of meetings since becoming Olin College of Engineering's first employee in January.

No brass nameplates here. A sheet of white paper with his name and title flaps on the door of the office loaned to him by neighboring Babson College.

"It really feels like a start-up company more than a college," Dr. Miller, Olin's first president, says.

Still, he expects Olin to compete with top engineering schools in just two years.

"I think engineering could well be the best liberal-arts preparation for the next century," says Miller. "A well-trained engineer should be able to pick up a book on the third law of thermodynamics and understand it, or pick up Shakespeare and understand that."

A key issue: how to recruit an Olin faculty that combines an emphasis on teaching with strong research ability.

"Only a fraction of faculty at most major research universities have a passion for undergraduate education," he says. "Olin has its highest priority set on undergraduate education. It's a cultural thing. If teaching undergrads isn't the thing that rings your bell we don't need you here.... We need faculty involved in research; it's just that undergrads are our highest priority."

When he was the school's only employee, Miller's biggest challenge was having too many great new ideas dumped on him all at once. Now his job is changing again.

"I'm playing the orchestra leader," he says. "Soon we'll be in the invention-of-the-curriculum mode.... Then we'll innovate. After that, we'll have to invent the textbooks."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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