Then he heard the board members’ adventurous plan—to create a new engineering college from scratch.
“They asked, ‘If we invented an engineering program today, what should it look like?’” Miller says. “I felt like I had prepared my entire career to be asked that question.”
Miller started out wanting to be a structural engineer, earning his PhD from Caltech in applied mechanics in 1976. His research focused on how to make buildings more resistant to earthquakes by placing them on flexible foundations.
“It was a bold idea, first proposed by one of my professors at MIT, that you could unbolt a building from the ground and let it slip as the earth moved,” said Miller. “At Caltech, I was encouraged by Bill Iwan [professor of applied mechanics, emeritus] to continue to pursue it. Today, there are many buildings that incorporate techniques based on similar concepts.”
Miller went on to faculty positions at UC Santa Barbara and USC, rising quickly up the ranks to administration. Over time, he became increasingly fascinated by a different type of structure—that of the curriculum itself—and concerned by what he felt were missed opportunities.
“Decades ago at USC, students were coming to us with questions about patents, as well as the contracts that companies were asking them to sign,” Miller recalls. He approached colleagues at the business school to inquire whether they had expertise in such matters. “They said, ‘Yes. But you can’t get here from there.’ Back then, business classes were only for MBA students, and there was little flexibility (though they have long since developed ways to bridge the disciplines.)”
This raised a question for Miller: As an engineer, he understood that the construction of a building required the understanding of a number of factors such as physics, geology, weather, or even social behavior. Could you not, using similar principles, engineer an education?
Miller spent the next two decades studying and experimenting, first at USC and then as dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa, where he implemented a number of well-received innovations.
Then the call came from the Olin Foundation, and with it, the opportunity to build a program from the ground up. After meeting with foundation representatives, Miller spent the plane trip back to Iowa feverishly typing out his ideas, which impressed the foundation so much that in 1999, he became Franklin W. Olin College’s president and first employee.