Welcoming President Gilda Barabino to Olin College

Welcoming President Gilda Barabino to Olin College

Mar 26, 2020

Excited to be able to finally talk about the thing that's taken me to Boston about 6 times in the last 8 months. Official announcement here.

Dr. Gilda Barabino is the next President of Olin College. Formerly, she was the Dean of the Andy Grove School of Engineering at City College of New York. She's an NAE Fellow in Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry, a member of the NIH Council on Sickle Cell Disease (a field where she is a noted principal investigator,) a member of the NSF Advisory Committee, and a chaired professor in the CCNY Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry and the City University School of Medicine.

But that's not really the whole story.

As part of the interview process, Niyi Owolabi (Class of '21) and I co-led a session we called Storytelling, where we all shared meaningful stories in our lives. Gilda’s story began with the very first thing her very first teacher ever said to her: “You’re not from Alaska, stop making things up.” Apparently, she thought, her teacher didn't think she looked like someone from Alaska. In fact, her father was in the military, so she sort of grew up "all over." He was stationed in Alaska, New Hampshire, overseas, and all over the country. When she lived in my home state of Florida for a couple years, she went to a segregated elementary school, but in Alaska, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, she was the only African American girl in class, and among the few in the town.

Gilda has a lot of stories that follow this theme. An undergraduate professor who told her she’d never graduate. Another one who told her she’d never get a PhD. An entire class of students who didn’t believe she was the instructor.
Gilda did of course graduate, get her PhD, and was that professor. Almost every line in her resume is followed by “the first” or “one of the first African American women to do so.”

She’s also broken through other kinds of walls. She sat down with my favorite writer on technical management, Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, to raise a lot of money for her engineering department. Great manager that he was, he pledged money for the program only if it could be done in 2 years. She came back to the college with the proposal, and they didn’t feel like the timeline was possible. So Gilda decided to take matters into her own hands and build the program on her own. In the end, she met the timeline, got the money, and the college matched Grove’s pledge.

Lastly, Olin has always had a focus on the ethics and real world applications of design and engineering. Gilda comes in at a challenging time, with all classes moved remote, no faculty, staff, or students on campus, a financial crisis underway - all real world implications of a historic pandemic. She also comes in with a lifetime of work on sickle cell disease, and appointments to NIH, NSF, ASEE, and NAE, all related to her work in biomedical engineering. This was not part of our plan as a search committee, but it seems to have been fortuitous.

One of the big questions for Gilda, as the first non-founding President of the College, will be “What is Olin 2.0?” and I think the answer from the community has been to continue to stay on the cutting edge not only of technology, but of society’s needs.

We will be welcoming our next President to the Olin community during a world-shifting pandemic with all of this relevant experience in our new shared future, who has also built multiple new academic programs for emerging fields in her previous roles at much larger institutions, with one would presume, much more inertia. I'm excited to see how Gilda brings that experience to bear on the Olin curriculum. None of us knows exactly what form that will take, but we are all betting that it will be bold.