A Candid Conversation with Charlie Nolan

Charlie Nolan was the fifth employee of Olin College and its founding Dean of Admission. Though he took three years off to help manage Admissions at Santa Clara University in California (2003-2006), he’s been an Oliner since 1999. He has been working in admissions for more than forty years, and holds a doctorate degree in higher education administration. Although he has worked at Boston College, Washington University, Babson, and other locations, he says his biggest challenge was coming to Olin and starting a school from scratch.

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Charlie was as welcoming as always when I walked into his office: always ready to offer a smile and a hug. In addition to his role as Dean of Admission, he is responsible for Postgraduate Planning and is an advisor to Rhodes Scholar candidates. Charlie teaches a co-curricular in public speaking each spring, so it was a delight but no surprise that he spoke throughout the interview in a measured, even tone and took the time to answer my questions thoughtfully and fully.

FRANKLY: How did you come to Olin?

NOLAN: It was 1997, and I was Dean of Admission at Babson for a total of eight years. I was also part of the strategic planning committee. And that March meeting, the president of Babson announced that the F. W. Olin Foundation was going to give an initial gift of 250 million dollars to start a new school of engineering, with a total gift of almost 500 million dollars, and that the school was going to be built on the Needham side of Babson’s campus.

At which point my jaw dropped. I thought, I have to be part of this! This has to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Duncan Murdoch was hired as the first Vice President of External relations. He’s a friend; he came from the West Coast. He came over to visit me to ask me to be on the search committee for the new Dean of Admission at Olin. At which point I stopped him and said, hire me. I want that job. Very much.

He said, really? And I said yes, I can’t imagine a better opportunity than to help Olin attract the best students in the world, and we’d do whatever it took for that to happen.

FRANKLY: How did you get into admissions?

NOLAN: In 1972, I was hired by Curry College, which is a local liberal arts college. I happened to be coaching football there at the time, and I was looking for a teaching job, because my first love was teaching, but there was a dearth of jobs back in the early ‘70s, just after I graduated college. There was an opening in the admissions office at Curry College, and I inquired about it, and they hired me. I thought that I would do it for a couple of years, until jobs opened up in teaching and coaching football at a local high school.

I’m now 41 years into Admission work. It became something that, with each passing year, I just embraced more and more. It’s something that challenges me every day. Every day is different, and every day is interesting and fun. I stayed with it, loved it; still do.

FRANKLY: You said you wanted to be a teacher. What did you want to teach?

NOLAN: History. I enjoy history; I like biographies; I’m a big fan of U.S. presidents and their biographies. I wanted to teach history and coach football, because I played football in high school and college and enjoyed it very much. I probably would have done that had there been any job openings at the time I needed one.

It’s a good lesson for Olin students to learn: whatever you think you may be starting out wanting to do, you can’t be quite sure where you’ll end up.

FRANKLY: Do you have a philosophy surrounding admissions and enrollment?

NOLAN: It can be summed up in the following: Doing fundamental things fundamentally well. In this age of social media and technology and sophistication around Admissions and marketing Admissions, enrollment management, I never lose sight of the fact that this is a very people-driven process. It’s about engaging people in a very straightforward, very honest way about what Olin is, and what Olin is not.

We want only those students who think of Olin as their first choice to come here. It’s very important for students to make the right decision about Olin. No regrets.

FRANKLY: How do students get selected to come to Olin?

NOLAN: Students invited to candidates’ weekends certainly have to be exceptional academically. They have taken the rigorous courses and made excellent grades, because Olin is a rigorous place.

Beyond that, we look for students who can bring a talent, a passion, a symbol of excellence to Olin to help it become an even better place. Frankly, we don’t care what it is, whether that it be community service, or athletics, or theater, or dance, it doesn’t make any difference, as long as the student really cares about it.

And that they “get Olin”. When they come to Candidates’ Weekend and they leave, they’ve got a very strong chemical reaction that this is the right place for them—or not.

Unfortunately, there are many more good fits than we have places, and that’s why we have the waiting list, which, at Olin, is unique, because students on the waiting list who we don’t have room for can take a gap year and come the following year. There’s no other school that we know of in the country that has that policy.

FRANKLY: How did that policy come about?

NOLAN: It goes back to the very first year, when we didn’t know if anybody was going to apply to Olin College. We had over 650 applicants for these thirty places. We had two Candidates’ Weekends back in those days, and it became clear that we had many more students that we would love to have had more than the thirty Olin Partners.

I’ve always felt that a gap year was a good idea for some students—taking a year off before they start college. And in this case, I literally made it up on the spot. I’m standing in front of the students on the Candidates’ Weekend, and said, we only have thirty places, and we’re only going to admit thirty people, because we only have thirty places in the modular buildings, back in 2001.

I said, if you’re on the waiting list and we don’t have enough space for you, we’ll take you the following year. And that was a bit of the Olin spirit of being creative about the admission process, and fourteen students took us up on that offer.

If I had my way, I’d gap year the whole class, and invite them to take a year off to do something really interesting, like climb the Andes, or build a business, or travel—something interesting so that their eyes are open, more than just taking the traditional high school-to-college path.

FRANKLY: Why do the candidates tell jokes at Candidates’ Weekends?

NOLAN: I guess it was five or six years ago, on Saturday morning, my colleagues allotted half an hour on the schedule to describe what was going to happen on Saturday to the students and the parents. That took exactly four minutes of a half hour block.

I stood there in front of 300 people, not knowing what to do. The perspiration is coming down my brow, I was stuck. And my mind is going a mile a minute. I just spontaneously said, does anybody know any jokes?

I told a very bad joke, and they all guffawed. And then some student said, well I know one! The next thing I knew, there was a steady stream of Candidates telling jokes.

Now it’s tradition. Every year we have joke telling. I set it up so that there’s no way around this; we’re telling jokes. It’s great fun. It helps, I think, to set the tone for the day.

FRANKLY: What motivates your Public Speaking co-curricular?

NOLAN: Part of it is personal philosophy; I think everyone should be able to stand and deliver in a clear, concise way, explaining anything that they need to explain.

I think it’s particularly important for Olin students, because I think that every Olin graduate is going to be an engineering leader, or a leader of some kind, in some field. One of the most important characteristics, traits, or skills that a leader has is the ability to make themselves clear to any number of people in the audience, whether it is three or three thousand.

Some students have said to me, “This is the hardest class that I’ve taken at Olin.”

FRANKLY: Do you, in your own public speaking, work to spread Olin’s mission?

NOLAN: It’s a piece of my work. You can’t talk about Olin without saying that we’re a missionary school. We’re not going to change the world by graduating 75 seniors every year. We’re going to change the world by spreading the “Olin effect” to other colleges and universities around the world.

Everybody here at Olin is by and large an ambassador for the College, not only as a place where bright achieving students come, but a benchmark school which other institutions can learn from. So yes, I do that, but all the rest of us instinctively do it as well.

I think Olin students do it instinctively, if they’re given an audience. And they do it as well as anybody.

It’s often been said that you don’t really get Olin until you come to Olin, and there’s not been a visitor who’s come to Olin who hasn’t walked away from this school and said, Wow! And that’s mostly because of what the students have said.

We’re supposed to be the salespersons for Olin College, but students are the living, breathing lifeblood of the place, and they just have a natural instinct about relating Olin in a very positive way. You could pick an Olin student at random and they would be impressive talking to anybody here. We don’t have to mold them into being salespeople; I think Olin students instinctively are. And they’re very good at it.

FRANKLY: What’s your favorite part of your job?

NOLAN: First and foremost and always is: prospective students becoming Olin students. It still is very hard for me to turn down a student I think would be a great match for Olin, but we just don’t have the space. But even once students are enrolled here, spending time with Olin students is always a pleasure. Above all else, what I’ve found is that Olin students are smart and achieving and interesting and energetic and enthusiastic, but above all else, I find them to be some of the nicest people I know.

FRANKLY: What’s the worst part of your job?

NOLAN: Turning down good students, that’s my least favorite. Sometimes it’s very hard, particularly for students I might have met while I was visiting them in their home high school and come to know very well, I’ve had to make some difficult calls—telephone calls, or students on the waiting list, and their parents won’t let them take the gap year, and they have to go somewhere else. That’s particularly hard to hear.

FRANKLY: I read that you race-walked a marathon in Alaska. Can you tell me about that?

NOLAN: I used to run marathons until my legs went bad, and then in 1996, I raised $4,000 for the American Cancer Society. They took me and a bunch of other people from Boston up to race-walk the Midnight Mayor’s Marathon, which is on the longest day of the year, in Alaska, and I walked 26 miles in 5 hours, 26 minutes.

It seemed like a long time, because when you’re running it’s only a little over three hours. When you’re walking, two hours more is a long time to be out there. But it was a gorgeous day, and we got to see magnificent country.

FRANKLY: Do you still race?

NOLAN: I do competitive open-ocean swimming; I swim in races anywhere from one to four miles in the ocean. Not this past year, but the previous three years, when I do my annual trip to Hawaii, I do the oldest open-ocean water race off of Waikiki Beach, which is two and a half miles, with a thousand other people. It’s a hoot.

FRANKLY: Do you bring any Oliners along on your ocean swimming?

NOLAN: No, but I would love to do it. I was going to teach swimming as a co-curricular, but it’s logistically difficult.

FRANKLY: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Olin community?

NOLAN: I’ve had a remarkable career in higher education. I’ve worked for a number of other institutions, some of the best in the country, but there’s no place like Olin, for the sense of community, the commitment we have for each other, the student-centeredness of this institution, it’s like no other. It’s a very proud personal and professional association I have with this school, and since I’ve been here since the beginning, it’s been remarkable to see this vision become a reality, and even a benchmark for other colleges and universities around the world.

It’s been great to be part of that. A small part, but a part all the same.