Behind The Curtain

What is the role of students at Olin? Are we the customers? Are we the product? In a meeting with college leaders last week, I was reminded that the administration sees Olin as a laboratory for engineering education where students are partners rather than guinea pigs. However, I suspect that the student body, myself included, has somewhat forgotten about the laboratory, mission-centered mindset that was once universal across the Olin Community.

But that’s not everything I learned. While we focus on our studies, our clubs, and our teams, the administration is hard at work building the college in ways we don’t always see. Last week, I represented the students in a meeting of the Academic Affairs and Student Life (AASL) Committee of the Board of Trustees, and I’d like to share with you my experience and what I learned.

Dressed to the nines in a black suit proudly bearing my CORe badge on its lapel, I walked briskly up the stairs to the second floor of Milas Hall, my dress shoes clicking against the stone steps and a leather business folder in my right hand. Admittedly, I was somewhat nervous. I had spent the entire morning drafting, revising, and tweaking a brief handout summarizing the current concerns and initiatives of Olin’s student body, and in minutes, I had to be prepared to present it to some of the most powerful leaders of the college.

At the threshold to Milas Hall 212, I paused to survey the room. In the center was a long wooden table, tapered in such a way that its shape was almost halfway between a rectangle and an oval. Emily Roper-Doten, our Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, sat at the end of the table – with her computer open – reviewing her presentation one last time. Sherwin Greenblatt, an Olin Trustee, MIT grad, and avid wearer of suspenders, sat in the middle of the far side of the table chatting with Dr. Robert McBurney, another Trustee who sat opposite. While Mr. Greenblatt enjoys mentoring new ventures, Dr. McBurney loves everything biomedical and has long been a proponent of expanding Olin’s biomedical engineering curriculum.

Susan Fredholm Murphy, an Olin partner and the first ever alumni Trustee on the Board, sat with Jessica Townsend on the near side of the table. Both looked over their notes and occasionally chimed in the pre-meeting table banter.

I prepared myself a cup of tea from the spread which had been laid out at the side of the room, and took a seat at the table. We were soon joined by a few more trustees – Dr. Paul Jennings, chair of the committee and former Provost of Caltech, Dr. James Plummer, trustee and former Dean of the Engineering School at Stanford, Mr. Ken Stokes, parent of a 2012 graduate and the new Chair of the Board – and nearly half of Olin’s senior administrators – Rick Miller, Vin Manno, Rae-Anne Butera, Sarah Spence Adams, and Lynn Andrea Stein.

Even though these administrators and I were invited to sit around this table, we all knew it was still the Trustees’ meeting. We were there to present and keep the Board informed. This was one of the few venues where even Vice Presidents and Deans waited to be called upon to speak.

Once everyone had sat down, Dr. Jennings wasted no time calling the meeting to order. The trustees present quickly approved the minutes of the last meeting of the committee, and Dr. Jennings asked Vin, Olin’s Provost and Dean of Faculty, to present the committee’s Top Concerns list.

For context, the AASL Committee keeps a list of top concerns organized into “red lights” – things that are clearly not going in the right direction – and “yellow lights” – things that are OK now, but appear to be going in the wrong direction, or things that are so complicated or uncertain that they could easily go wrong. This October, the Committee had no red light concerns but had a few yellow light concerns largely centered around growing the capacity of the faculty and how Academic Life organizational structures would change with a larger faculty and increased levels of both curriculum innovation and Collaboratory activity. As Vin unpacked each concern, it was clear that the college considers itself in “growth mode” when it comes to the faculty.

Emily Roper-Doten was the next to present. She explained how the Admissions and Financial Aid offices had been combined into the Office for Admission and Financial Aid. She highlighted how she and her new staff have been able to travel more and recruit from areas of the country where Olin hadn’t previously. Emily also described how her office was making a special effort this year to ensure that Olin’s next incoming class represents a “rich diversity of backgrounds, creativity, and personality.”

After Emily fielded a few questions from the Trustees, Dr. Jennings called upon Rae-Anne, our Dean of Student Life, to give her update about Student Affairs and Resources (StAR). Rae-Anne explained how StAR had invited MIT’s Title IX coordinator to lead a workshop on the basics of Title IX and related legislation and how StAR has been working with the Honor Board to review the policies and procedures that govern our student judicial process. She also said that StAR is reviewing Olin’s current student exchange relationships and potentially looking for new partnerships.

As President of CORe, I was slated to present after Rae-Anne, so I passed around the handout I had made summarizing the concerns and initiative of the student body. I informed the Trustees of the Sexual Respect Project, a joint initiative between CORe, the Honor Board, the PAs, and the R2s. The Sexual Respect Team has been holding workshops and feedback discussions with the ultimate goal of presenting recommendations for improvement to the administration and Honor Board about our policies around sexual misconduct. I also made them aware of CORe’s efforts to improve institutional memory, redesign course registration, and add more artwork around campus.

Unfortunately, I was in the dangerous position of being between thirteen people and lunch, so as soon as I had finished my last thought, Dr. Jennings called a break for lunch, and we each snagged a sandwich from the catering which had been set up on a side table.

Jessica Townsend, our Associate Dean for Curriculum and Academic Programs, ate her lunch quickly and was called upon to discuss Olin’s new curricular innovations. She enlightened us all on the new Quantitative Analysis Stream experiment, a three-year long pilot to introduce integrated modeling and analysis courses. It’s currently under development and will be offered for the first time this coming spring. Jessica also expressed that Olin is working to improve assessment methods and data collection to better evaluate curricular experiments.

Sarah Spence Adams, our Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Development, spoke next. She explained how we’re excited to welcome several new faculty members this year and how Olin is continuing to grow the faculty. Apparently, we expect to add four to five more professors in the next year! One of the trustees, Mr. Stokes, asked how Olin’s hiring process differed from other institutions, and Sarah commented that our process includes far more student involvement and group activities than most other hiring processes. She affirmed that candidates always left having a better understanding of what Olin is like.

In final segment of the meeting, Lynn Andrea Stein, Director of the Collaboratory and our Associate Dean for External Engagement and Initiatives, reported on Olin’s off campus activities. In day to day college life, I sometimes forget Olin’s larger mission of revolutionizing engineering education, but through Lynn’s discussion, I was reminded that Olin is a sort of national laboratory. She pointed out that students are not the customers or the products but rather partners in a larger project. As she spoke, it seemed apparent that the entire administration was on the same page about our mission, but I began to wonder if the laboratory mindset has been somewhat forgotten by the student body over the years.

Lynn had been the final presenter, and the Trustees had no other business to discuss. The meeting soon concluded, and I was left wondering how I might share my experience with other students.

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