A Letter to the Olin Community

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.
Finally, I want to share that I have felt a lot of hesitation around publishing this. For a variety of reasons, I have decided that Olin is not the right place for me and I will be leaving at the end of the semester. It does not feel good to make a statement like this and then bolt, to not be part of the potential hard work ahead. In the end, I decided that public declarations of belief are important to me, even if they contain some hypocrisy. Take it or leave it, as they say.
And take care of yourselves. You all are brilliant, wonderful people. I look forward to seeing the beautiful things that you do.