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September 1, 2020

Dear Olin community, 

The beginning of every academic year brings with it the unmatched excitement and energy associated with new and returning faces, fresh outlooks and approaches to educational advances, and a chance to set the stage for what’s to come. This year will be like no other, coming on the heels of a dramatic pivot in the spring in response to the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic and a season of protests brought on by the needless loss of Black lives and a desire to stand up to systemic racism. In this moment of crises lies a unique opportunity for the Olin community to draw on its special qualities and strengths to collectively find new ways to accomplish its mission in order to benefit higher education and society.

It’s been a mere two months since I officially joined the Olin community, and my connection to the college grows stronger each day. Working alongside faculty and staff as we have been preparing for the fall, I’ve been able to witness firsthand their dedication to Olin’s mission and to our students. Now, as we approach the actual start of the fall semester, I look forward to getting to know our students and seeing them work together and support one another when they return to campus or join with us virtually.

We know that what makes the Olin education special is our experiential learning and that students enjoy being together in a campus community. At the same time, our top priority is maintaining the safest campus environment possible. Balancing all of this together, the college leadership, working collaboratively with the Olin community, developed a plan for the year ahead that we believe will maintain the high value of our engineering education as well as a rich student experience. There is no other place I know of that could combine the two quite so intentionally as Olin will. I am fortunate to now be part of a team of people who have done, and continue to do, an extraordinary job of leading Olin through the pandemic and beyond.

Thinking back on my own school experience, I never lost sight of the importance of education that my parents instilled in me, and I approached each year with the same enthusiasm and intensity toward expanded learning opportunities. I was not deterred by the exclusionary practices I encountered along the way that were designed to limit educational opportunities for Blacks such as Plessy v. Ferguson, allowing for “separate but equal” institutions that were anything but equal. When I was in the third grade in Florida, 10 years after the abolishment of “separate but equal” by Brown v. Board of Education, I was bused to an all-Black school when a white school was walking distance from my house. My academic path and that of other Blacks and people of color is riddled with instances of egregious as well as more subtle forms a racism — a pattern that threatens the well-being of all of us by limiting access to knowledge creation and innovation that comes with diversity of minds.

Along with the rest of the country, Olin is undergoing a period of introspection and dialogue regarding the devastating impact of systemic racism in America. Beyond the dialogue, we must be prepared to take action that leads to lasting change. I can assure you that I will lead the charge at Olin and use my platform at Olin to reduce the effects of systemic racism and to increase opportunity for all who wish to pursue engineering and education more broadly. Built on a culture of co-creation, constant change and innovation, Olin is well positioned to lead the change we need. I ask each one of you: “What will you do to be an agent of change?”

I admit that it is daunting to begin my presidency during the COVID-19 pandemic. Operational and economic implications are significant and will require ongoing steps to ensure safety and mitigate losses. The college leadership took decisive measures in the spring to reduce expenses and conserve resources, resulting in $800,000 in savings. We will continue with these prudent financial practices in the year ahead. Fortunately, we have not yet had to turn to layoffs or furloughs, and we are able to continue to teach, engage and guide our students in the Olin way. I have every confidence that Olin will remain strong and continue our mission far into the future.

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes a tremendous toll on people around the world, it is also affecting members of the Olin community who may have been infected with the virus or lost family or friends to the disease. We keep these people in our thoughts always and we offer support to faculty, staff and students who face personal challenges that come with the pandemic.

Over time, I will be communicating with you more about the strategic direction and vision for Olin and what I refer to as “strategic doing.” By strategic doing, I mean the intentional undertaking of new programming that builds on past and existing efforts and is consistent with Olin’s core values and future intent. I can say right now that I am personally committed to advancing Olin’s dual mission of educating exemplary engineers and leading the transformation of engineering education through constant change and innovation informed by equity and social justice. I am committed to ensuring that Olin is as resilient and financially stable as possible into the future. And I am committed to making Olin a place in which we create lifelong opportunities for those who are too often pushed to the margins because of their race, ethnicity, gender or economic background. 

We at Olin have a lot of work to do to maintain our unique teaching and learning environment today while keeping our sights on our ambitious goals for the future. But we cannot do this alone. And so I ask you for the first time as the president of Olin — and certainly not the last — to please engage with us in this important work by sharing your wisdom, passion and support. Together, we can build a stronger Olin. 

Sincerely,

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Gilda Barabino