The Intentional Design of Community Experience to Drive Culture Change
Words & Media: Jeff Goldenson
Illustrations: Doyung Lee ‘16.5
+ Invite Everyone to the Table
early, often and without agenda
+ Find Room in the Margins
of the curriculum and the academic calendar
+ This is Show Business
not “tell business,” we are designing entertaining
experiences people choose to engage with
How Colleges Learn
In 1994 Stewart Brand published an eye-opening book, How Buildings Learn, that explores how people shape their buildings over time. I wish he’d write a follow-up called How *Colleges* Learn to empower college constituents — the staff, students and faculty — to shape their institutions over time.
Until that happens, you can play a game of “find/replace” to get a preview. Swap the word “college” for “building” in Brand's How Buildings Learn, and with a little imagination, novel guidance awaits.
Almost no buildings colleges adapt well. They’re designed
not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to,
constructed not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed
not to, even remodeled not to. But all buildings colleges
(except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly,
because the usages in and around them are changing
Under a five year mandate from the Provost, a group of staff, faculty, students and I leveraged culture and community to help an open-minded engineering college adapt. Olin College of Engineering is a small, project-based learning college in Needham, Massachusetts.
Founded 20 years ago with $500 million dollars from the Franklin W. Olin Foundation, Olin is a mission driven organization "dedicated to continual discovery and development of effective learning approaches and environments.”*
But as we’ve grown up, the pressures of institutionalization have challenged our spirit of “continual discovery and development.”
What would a building college look like and act like if
it was designed for easy servicing by the users themselves?
Once people are comfortable doing their own maintenance and
repair, reshaping comes naturally because they have the
hands-on relationship with their space, and they know how
it actually works and will have ideas about how to improve it.
(Brand, pg. 189)
To echo Brand, perhaps a college "would look and act like" Olin did in early March, 2020.
On Tuesday, March 10th at 4:06pm a long email titled “Olin COVID-19 Important Updates” arrived in the inbox of every staff, student and faculty member at Olin. It came from our founding President, Rick Miller, and was written to inform the community that “students should not plan to return to campus after spring break.”
About an hour later, a brief message came across a very different channel,
email@example.com — Olin’s student-owned mailing list for last-minute, serendipitous opportunities. This one was titled “Group Scream on the great lawn 5:40 EOM”. (EOM = End of Message)
By the time a few students and staff had gathered around a table the next morning, nothing was normal. We were in the Greenhouse, a small creative studio just inside the entrance to our academic building. In the Greenhouse, we grow young ideas, and some plants. Joining me were Susan Mihailidis, Director of Academic Affairs and Sponsored Programs; Robert Wechsler, Olin’s Artist in Residence; and a quartet of students: Matt Brucker ’20, Ana Krishnan ’20, Evan New-Schmidt ’20, and Sam Kaplan ’24. For these few students who had made it out of bed, emotions ran high. The feelings deserved airtime, and the best thing we could do as staff was to honor them by listening.
After about an hour, a heaviness set in and Susan, a senior member of the administration capable of marshalling support from across the college, was ready to act. “How about a time capsule?” she challenged. As the idea bounced around the room the energy shifted. That’s when Evan ‘20 chimed in: “How about a fake commencement?” Those five words sucked the air out of the room.
Minutes later, we strode over to the Campus Center with giddy purpose to pitch the idea to our Interim Provost and frequent collaborator, Mark Somerville. The Campus Center houses Olin’s only dining hall, which most mornings doubles as Mark’s office. And there he was, on the far side of the room, back to the wall, reliably in his black turtleneck. Ana ‘20 took the lead and pitched the idea as the rest of us looked on. Mark’s reply, “What do you need to make this happen?” gave us the green light to get moving.
Walking back to the Greenhouse, Matt ‘20, who not an hour before was rightly consumed by the shock of a senior spring evaporating, turned with a vigorous grin and a shrug of disbelief, “We’ve got something to do!”
From that moment, a spirit of co-creation swept the campus. Faux-mencement was a community-owned affair. Matt and Ana sent out a pitch-perfect Commencement Announcement that looked like a ransom note. Olin hadn’t rented the caps and gowns yet, so someone found an origami mortar board “how-to” and a decision was made to don garbage bag gowns. Diplomas that read “☻ congratulætions Olin student💥…” were sent to the Registrar’s Office so names could be matched with almost-earned degrees. After checking and re-checking for accuracy, the faux-diplomas earned the imprimatur of our Registrar, Linda Canavan. Then Adam Novotny ‘21, rubber stamped ‘em with a freshly laser cut “GO Olin!” stamp.
Late that night at Stay Late and Create (SLAC), Olin’s weekly festival of creativity, students folded origami mortar boards and trimmed trash bag gowns. Meanwhile, the commencement speakers — President, Provost, honored faculty, staff and students — who thought they had three months to write remarks, worked overtime.
As for Faux-mencement itself, the sincerity was palpable. Emotions were as raw as they were joyful. The Olin Conductorless Orchestra played video game themes as Olin’s leadership marched down the aisle. Somewhere between the candid remarks of the Senior Greeters, the ceremoniously applied hand sanitizer between handshakes and the symbolic sliding of yarn tassels across paper caps, the rite of passage was vivid.
Faux-mencement matters because it was a pure expression of “Olin-ness” at the very moment we needed it most. It was a demonstration of institutional agility and college-scale collaboration that we could be proud of. On the eve of exile we came together to co-create the ritual of closure we could’ve lost. We took commencement back for ourselves, leaving Olin with a story.
If Faux-mencement demonstrates a principle, it’s Brand’s:
Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building college
come to be loved. The building college learns from
its occupants, and they learn from it.
(Brand, pg. 23)