The Return to Happiest

4 years ago, I was an impressionable senior in high school sitting in the Norden Auditorium anxiously waiting for Candidates Weekend to begin. President Rick Miller got up to the podium to give his welcoming speech. I don’t remember much about what he said, but one thing that stuck out to me was a statistic he used. According to the Princeton Review, in 2020, we were ranked number 4 “Students Study the Most” and ranked number 14 for “Happiest Students”. Normally, I would say rankings aren’t that important, but Princeton Review does a great job of surveying students and using those results to determine their rankings. We were the only college on both of those lists and talking to students throughout the rest of my candidates weekend experience, it was clear that they were happy to be here and really enjoyed the work they were doing. Now we are no longer on the “Happiest Students” list and we are ranked 1st for “Students Study the Most”. What’s changed?

Olin College has never been perfect by any means, but that was part of the appeal that was advertised to me during the admissions process. Olin College was continually reinventing itself in a collaborative process to improve engineering education and the school as a whole. I believe that collaborative design process has been lost and been replaced by planning behind closed doors. 

One of the most unique classes we take at Olin is called Collaborative Design and it’s a part of the reason I came to this school. In the class, we practice user oriented design by interviewing people in a user group, and understanding everything about them. We then work to create a solution for a problem they have. We codesign the solution with them during repeated feedback sessions to understand what could make our solution more useful for them. This class takes a significant amount of nuance and understanding of our stakeholders to create something for them. That collaboration that’s critical in the design process taught at Olin hasn’t been implemented in policy creation at Olin.  

It’s important to look at the financials of the college. According to a member of the board of trustees, Olin College runs an 8 million dollar deficit per year. That’s approximately 20 thousand dollars per student per year. We have an endowment that is a large sum of money that gains interest every year, but if we draw more than the interest minus inflation from the endowment, the purchasing power of the endowment decreases and will lead to the college running out of money in the long run. This is a major challenge that the college is facing and I believe to come up with solutions, we need to engage in a similar process to what we did in Collaborative Design by making sure we understand all the stakeholders involved before creating plans rather than announcing plans and apologizing half-heartedly or not at all after the fact. 

There have been a string of “solutions” that have been rolled out in my time at Olin that address this problem. In my first year, there were layoffs that impacted employees of the college without student input. In my second year, to fit all the students coming back from a semester or year away from school due to COVID they built walls in suite common spaces so we could accommodate an additional person in each suite. They also converted some rooms to triples all without student input. They claimed the walls would be temporary, but then said that the walls were here to stay due to financial reasons without student input. In my third year, they tried doing codesign with students to determine whether Babson students should live in the dorms. Many students voiced that feedback and we were told that the proposal didn’t go through due to our feedback. The proposal didn’t go through because Babson no longer had a need to house students on our campus, and this year, it was announced unexpectedly that students from the first floor of East Hall would be relocated to make space for Babson students that would live in our dorms. This decision was again made without student input. It was just recently announced that the incoming class will be 110 students and that there will be triples for students. This decision was made without student input. When talking to administrators, students have been asked to talk about decisions made at Olin using “we” not “they,” but it’s very difficult to do that when we don’t feel represented in the process.

This trend of not soliciting student input and working to codesign proposals wasn’t how Olin always was. I don’t think that most of these proposals were inherently bad and they make sense given our financial situation. The frustrating part has been the lack of input from students and the ability to codesign. 

In the year before I came to Olin, a project to redesign the 1st floor of the MAC was put forward. Students looked at this plan and found that there were significant problems with this proposal. They presented these problems to President Miller and other administrators and the project was then canceled. That’s the last time I believe students had a significant voice on campus in codesigning what Olin is.

Talking to alumni, one of the ways students were involved in the past is through having representation on committees that would make decisions around campus. It was these committees that made decisions about most things related to the school including student life, academics, admissions, etc. Many of these committees have been dissolved, but the structures used by committees remain in groups like the Academic Review Board and Space Force where students have representation. By forming many committees like these, it would prevent planning behind closed doors and allow students to have a voice. 

Why do I think we’re no longer on the happiest students list? I think it’s because the collaboration and co-design that this college preaches isn’t practiced inside the school. I think it’s because decisions that affect student life continue to be made without student input. I can’t speak for every student on campus, but I think most of us want to help with the problems our college faces. We don’t want our college to run out of money. We just want to be a part of the solution creation process like we were promised we would be when we chose to come here. I think we as a community need to work together to continually reinvent Olin so that we can tackle these new challenges while not sacrificing what makes Olin a place for all of us. 

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