A day before his inauguration, Scott Olson was in his office pondering the mysteries of his own career path: How a person from a long line of dentists could become the 15th president of Winona State University.
One thing he did know: He didn't want to be a dentist. What he did discover about himself, once he a became a professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato, was a love of teaching. And there he might have remained indefinitely but for the serendipitous recommendation of a department chair, who saw Olson's potential as an administrator.
"I don't know what it is they saw in me, except maybe I'm just a little more outgoing than the typical professor," Olson said. "What I am at heart, really, is a very extroverted writer."
Olson didn't take to being an administrator right away. In fact, as MSU-Mankato's assistant dean for two years, he discovered the work nearly intolerable. But once back in the classroom, Olson realized he missed the big-picture potential of being an administrator, the ability to spread one's ideas and best practices onto a larger canvas.
"At some point, I realized that the ability to shape (education) on a bigger scale was very appealing," Olson said.
And Olson, who was inaugurated Friday in Winona and will be feted at a reception in Rochester on Tuesday, is a leader with big ideas.
Rochester Community and Technical College President Don Supalla is a fan of Olson, having observed Olson work in different administrative capacities at MSU-Mankato and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system office. He calls Olson smart, politically astute, a leader with a human touch, a "relater." Soon after his appointment as WSU president, Olson lived in a residential dormitory with students during the fall semester.
When the WSU presidency opened up, Supalla urged Olson to apply for the WSU job, knowing that RCTC would have a strong partner in building programs at University Center Rochester. WSU serves about 8,000 students at its main campus in Winona and another 1,000 students at its Rochester campus. WSU-Rochester primarily offers upper-level courses to juniors and seniors.
"He isn't going to do anything that's going to harm, damage or diminish what the main campus in Winona is doing," Supalla said. "But there's growth potential in Rochester — I think tremendous growth potential for baccalaureate programming — and based on our conversations, he wants to be part of that."
A conversation about education with Olson can sweep over a wide landscape: On the eve of his inauguration, Olson discussed his plans for an "Education Village" at WSU, the "skies-the-limit-potential" for growth at the WSU-Rochester campus, for strengthening WSU's partnership with K-12 schools, including Rochester, and bringing more hands-on training to teachers in training. It also included detours into technology and iPads, Socrates and Plato, and WSU men's and women's basketball games.
The WSU president spends, on average, one day a week on the Rochester campus and made clear his intention to tighten the bonds between WSU and the Rochester community. He said he is exploring ways to bring more sporting and cultural events to Rochester, perhaps even having, say, a WSU home basketball game played in Rochester.
"That's an amenity that we have here, that we'd like to share with Rochester," he said. "We've got a superb choir, superb symphonic music. Can we do occasional performances in Rochester?"
Winona State University President Scott Olson was inaugurated Friday, becoming the university's 15th president.
A reception for Olson will be held Tuesday at University Center Rochester, which combines Rochester Community and Technical College and WSU-Rochester.