WSU Currents •
Your biography notes that you grew up in
the Twin Cities. What was your early life like?
My grandfathers and dad were dentists but there never
was any expectation that I would do that.
My dad was also a part-time ski instructor. One of my
happiest memories is being with my family skiing at
Buck Hill [in Burnsville, Minn.].
Growing up I loved to make movies with friends.
This was in the days of Super 8 film, before digital
video. One of our friends went on to be a writer in film
and television; he’s written for the “X-Files” and other
shows. Later, I got a job as an animator’s assistant at a
company in Edina. That was pretty great.
Did those experiences lead to your academic
interest in communication and media studies?
As an undergraduate I was a history major. A friend of
mine was working on a movie for his senior project and
asked me if I would do the animation. I started working
on it and thought, “This is awesome.”
So I entered graduate school thinking, “Okay, I’m
finally going to do this.” I wanted to maybe be a writer
for film or television. It didn’t really dawn on me until I
was near the end of my master’s, but I discovered the
scholarship interested me more than the doing of the
thing. The thinking, the research, writing, the teaching,
I thought it was fascinating.
I enrolled in the doctoral program and pursued
a career as a professor. I found the right path. I love
academics and being in the university culture.
Your teaching and research interests involve how
media is received by and adapts to global cultures.
Does this inform your communication style?
I’m very interested in common wisdom, common un-
derstanding. That’s one of about three good ideas I’ve
had in my life. [Laughs] Another was to marry my wife,
Kelley. The other was to come to Winona State.
I love stories. I love hearing stories. And I kind of
like telling them. They’re where we find our common
humanity and also where we find our common purpose.
Do you think you know the story of Winona State?
Not fully. What I have is broad sense of the “epic”
story: the good that it’s done, the greatness it engen-
ders, faculty members and staff members and students
doing incredible, amazing things. Over the next few
months, I’m really going to enjoy hearing the stories
that make that up.
Part of my job is to help figure out the common
threads, and help craft them into a bigger narrative.
And see where that might lead us. The story has been
amazing so far, but that’s not to sit back and say, “That’s
it. We did it.” Winona’s greatest days lie ahead. I
wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that.
Your career has been at well-regarded regional pub-
lic universities. Was that a deliberate choice?
My education is from a different kind of place. While I
wouldn’t diminish the important role that universities
like that play, I chose to work at institutions that, 150
years or so ago, were normal schools.
Today they’ve evolved into the “people’s univer-
sity.” This is where access, opportunity, and success
occur. These are the universities where we care deeply
about our students in ways that I didn’t experience as
an undergraduate. That mission was appealing to me.
What is their role in higher education?
The beauty of Winona State and institutions like it is
that they give students from all kinds of backgrounds,
all kinds of experiences, a shot at the American dream.
Students come here – maybe the first from their
family to go to college, maybe they didn’t think they
could come to a place this great – because the faculty
and staff care passionately about them. Lives are
changed, transformed, every day.
You see it on orientation day, a kind of wonder-
ment: “I can’t believe we’re going to be part of this.”
Then you see it again at commencement. The same
wonder is there, but it’s different: “You did it! This
place has opened for you pathways to whatever it is
you wanted to be.”
Do universities like WSU face challenges?
At the moment, we’re challenged by the squeeze
caused by the state not appropriating the resources it
once did, and our commitment to keep tuition as low
as possible. But the mission has not diminished one bit.
It’s needed more now than ever.
You may be the first WSU president to have won
an Emmy, for a documentary on digital learning.
I was executive producer – the idea guy, the budget
The editors of Currents interviewed President Olson on June 22, 2012.