Engineering for (Literal) Impact

More than fifty years ago, Vietnam War student protests resulted in many universities severing
their relationships with the military-industrial complex. Many universities separated themselves
from on-campus labs that conducted substantial weapons manufacturing-related research,
including Stanford (Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International), Cornell (Cornell
Aeronautical Laboratory, now Calspan), and MIT (MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, now Draper
The ongoing genocide in Palestine has prompted universities across the country—including
nearby MIT, BU, Tufts, Northeastern, Harvard, UMass Amherst, and Brandeis—to reckon with
institutional complicity with those enabling Israel’s war crimes. I would hope that we do the
The following excerpted Frankly Speaking article was published in April 2016. Since then, Olin
has rebranded around a Strategic Plan that explicitly names equity and justice as core
institutional values (“Engineering for Everyone” and “Engineering for Impact”).
And yet Olin’s current military and weapons manufacturer ties include SCOPE and research
projects, recruitment through career fairs and newsletters, endowment investments, and our
president’s position on the Department of Defense Innovation Board.
I republish this article excerpt as neither a critique nor absolvement of individual careers, as
incessant focus on individual responsibility prevents broader structural analysis of the ways
universities perpetuate US militarism. Instead, it is a call to recognize how Olin funnels students
into what Bue Rübner Hansen calls “batshit jobs”, or jobs that are inherently deathmaking.
As Hansen writes, “to call this work mad does not mean that workers are crazy to make a living,
but rather to point out that a crazy contradiction arises when making a living is also a part of
unmaking life on many scales […]. Some workers could leave their jobs fairly easily, and others
are deeply dependent on the next paycheck. These workers have an interest in habitable
environments, but are caught in a maddening contradiction, asked by their employers to destroy
the conditions of life in order to make a living. We are habituated to think of this as normal, even
rational, but it’s time to say openly that it is madness, and to start from there.”
Letter to the Olin Community (2016)
At the most recent Town Meeting I asked President Miller if he thought there was a contradiction
between our talk of teaching students how to have a positive impact on the world and our
participation in systems of violence. I specifically brought up our collaboration with military
contractors in project work, but also that I think we would find violence in more than just the
military-industrial complex if we took a critical look. He did not answer my question, but said that
he thought it is a conversation that our community should have. I would like to use this forum to
continue that conversation and express some thoughts that I have about values and purpose.
I want to be clear about a few things. I do not intend this article as an attack on any member of
the Olin community, either explicitly or implicitly. While I have very conflicted feelings about this
institution, and certainly some criticism of individual actions, I feel a lot love for the people who
are part of this place and have found my relationships here as both a student and an instructor
to be very meaningful. I also want to be clear that this is not an article about the presence of
militarism on campus. I have my own set of values, and I am happy to discuss them, but I am
not going to make the argument that my values should be your values, or that they should be
our community’s values. My argument is that we, as an institution, should decide on and publicly
declare meaningful values and act to embody them.
Our “core institutional values” are all self-centered and neither stake out our position nor offer us
guidance in our engagement with the world. At a recent meeting a faculty member declared that
“Olin’s brand is that students build cool stuff.” The quote above the library, that “Engineers
envision what has never been, and do whatever it takes to make it happen,” is apolitical and
amoral about both ends and means, accepting any vision of “what has never been” and any
tactics used to get there. This is problematic: we could all think of examples of people trying to
realize “what has never been” that we would find abhorrent. Why not qualify that statement with
values that speak to how we want the world to be?
I see a few potential reasons for our lack of commitment to values that speak about how to act
in the world. The first reason is that it is difficult. Such a commitment would compel us to
navigate gray areas, be deeply self-critical, and make hard compromises. It would hold back our
“bias towards action” and likely lead us to restraint, a concept that goes against the instincts of
engineering and of our culture. A declaration of values would necessitate conversations about
whether our institution’s actions realize those values, and these are not easy conversations.
Resistance to these difficult conversations can find validation in the assumption that technology
is neutral, that engineers create tools and don’t have to concern themselves with how those
tools get used. Technologies are not neutral. Technologies reflect the goals of their creators,
have effects on the world that are not neutrally distributed, and re-arrange power structures in
society. We cannot hide behind the idea that technologies are neutral and that their effects,
whether positive or negative, are the sole responsibility of the user.
The second reason lies deeper. It is often implicit, as it is in that quote above the library. It is the
assumption that engineering cannot help but make the world a better place. It is a deep faith in
technological invention and innovation. This faith is problematic; it is ignorant of the lopsided
effects that engineering has, both within humanity and between humanity and the non-human
world (see the surveillance state, drone strikes, climate change, etc.). It also displaces the social
in favor of the technical, and we ought to consider the possibility that what the world needs is
not the stuff of science fiction but of “social fiction.”
There is a third possible reason, and that is that we do not care about figuring out how to leave
the world a better place than we found it. From my experiences here, the conversations I’ve
had, the wonderful and beautiful work that I’ve seen students, faculty, and staff pursue, I don’t
think this is true. I am sure that there are people here that truly don’t care, but I do not see
evidence of this as a general truth.
So I am not trying to claim that we are a community of sociopaths. My argument is more along
the lines that Olin is institutionally sociopathic. Many members of our community want to figure
out how to do good in the world and yet we have an institution that offers little support and is
content with evaluating its success by the starting salaries of its graduates.
I think that if we’re serious about leading a revolution in engineering education, a sense of
purpose around why and how we practice engineering is important. And I strongly believe that
we should codify that purpose. As practicing engineers, and indeed as some of the most
privileged people on the planet (the average Olin starting salary puts one in the top 1% of
income earners in the world), we have incredible power. Using that power for good is not easy. I
think it is quite difficult to leave things better than we found them when we’re explicitly trying
very hard at it, and impossible when we’re not. I am arguing that we should go for it, and we
should go for it explicitly.
What do you think? What do you think the purpose of Olin College is, or should be? What would
you like to see in the list of core institutional values? My idea of amending the core institutional
values is just that, an idea. It is a potential first step, with a lot of hard work to follow.
If this is near and dear to you, get organized. Host discussions, draft proposals, try and build a
consensus among the student body. Look for faculty support, but understand that the lack of
tenure at Olin makes it difficult for faculty to speak critically about the institution. Bring ideas to
the administration and to the Board of Trustees, and expect resistance. Recognize that there is
a lot of comfort with the status quo. But also recognize that this is your college and that you
have power to transform it.
I also want to point out here that I think the scholarship is fundamentally tied into this (fun fact,
the scholarship is the only founding precept that the Board of Trustees has been willing to
revise, even before the grossly misguided commitments to capitalism and no tenure for faculty).
When I graduated from Olin I had no debt and a lot of freedom to take risks, and I know that this
is a freedom that many students do not have. An unequivocal commitment by Olin College to
direct engineering education towards bettering the world would demand a commitment to
students graduating without debt as well as strong support of students taking risks, both during
and after Olin.
For additional context on the history of military contractors at Olin, see these Frankly Speakings:
● Is Our Empowerment Zero-Sum? (2011)
● The Meaning of Empowerment (2011)
● A Few Thoughts (2011)
See also:
● Abrams, R. M. (1989). The U.S. Military and Higher Education: A Brief History. The
ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 502(1), 15-28.
● Smart, B. (2016). Military-industrial complexities, university research and neoliberal
economy. Journal of Sociology, 52(3), 455-481.
● Wilson, D. A. (1989). Consequential Controversies. The ANNALS of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science, 502(1), 40-57.
● Tufts: Students, community members protest military industrial recruitment at career fair The Tufts Daily
● UMass Amherst: Update on UMass Dissenters protest efforts against Raytheon and
subsidiary company – Massachusetts Daily Collegian
● Boston University: Students protest Engineering Career Fair for inviting companies that
‘cause harm’ – The Daily Free Press
● Harvard: O’Sullivan: Resign Out of Shame, Not Pressure | Opinion | The Harvard
● Northeastern: Activists, students protest Raytheon at NU career fair – The Huntington

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