Scott Olson starts new job as chancellor, says goodbye to Winona State University

by Annika Freiburger

***This article originally appeared in the La Crosse Tribune and was written by Rachel Mergen 

After 11 years at Winona State University, former president Scott Olson has started a new adventure in his career.

Olson started in his new role of chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system Aug. 1, after he was selected for the job in May.

“Scott has deep roots in Minnesota State and is known throughout the system as a collaborative and strategic leader,” Minnesota State board of trustees chair Roger Moe said of Olson’s appointment. “He has amassed an outstanding reputation in every role he has played, and has the skills needed to build a common vision of what Minnesota State can become. We are very pleased that he has accepted our offer to serve as the next chancellor of Minnesota State.”

Leaving Winona

Olson said he was experiencing many emotions as he prepared for the transition, even though he knew he would visit in the future.

He felt gratitude toward the Winona community, but also sadness as he left behind daily life in the city.

“Every Winonan understands this is an amazing, special place to live,” Olson said. “The 11 years that I spent here, they couldn’t have been richer or more fulfilling or happier or better than they were.”

Olson isn’t just focused on the past, though, as he feels hope and excitement about the promotion.Olson was interested in the open chancellor position for multiple reasons, some professional and some personal.

He said professionally, he wants “to ensure that at the system level, the focus is always on campuses and students.”

He believes his predecessor, Devinder Malhotra, had the same focus in mind while serving in the position since 2017.

Personally, Olson had an interest in the position because of his ties to the Twin Cities, as that is where he is originally from.

After recently connecting with high school classmates of his, he said he began examining how and where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

This led to him wanting to return to the area he grew up in, where he could also be closer to his granddaughter, who was born earlier this year.

“I’m at that point in my career where I’m really thinking backward from the end, not forward from the beginning anymore,” he said about the thought process behind his decision.

Favorite memories

He said that he will always remember fondly his first six months as president, when he and his wife lived in the college dorms so that they could see students as they are.

The students welcomed Olson with open arms, even baking him and his wife cakes to celebrate their October birthdays and anniversary during homecoming week.

Olson also said he would remember the accomplishments the university completed during his tenure as president to benefit students.Some of those major moments include the completion of the Education Village and the pedestrian tunnels.

Olson said his favorite memories include the ones where the university was recognized for its hard work — like in rankings published by US News and World Report each year.

Lessons learned

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olson said he also learned about the resilience of the university and its community.

“I’ll remember with pride the way this campus responded to COVID,” he said.

While employees faced many unknowns, they worked to continue to support the campus’ excellence and overall missions, he said.

As for students, they didn’t let COVID-19 beat them down either. Olson noted graduation rates were up during the COVID-19 pandemic at the university.

“In the case of COVID, it was hard, but like a lot of hard, challenging things, good things can come from them. And we learned some things about our own resilience and we learned some things about our fortitude and what mattered most,” he said.

During his time at the university, Olson learned about the importance of involving stakeholders, like students and employees, when making major decisions.

“I learned that in this community, when you consult with folks, ideas get better,” he said.

While not everybody always agreed on the best approaches toward bettering the university, he said everyone had the same end goal of doing what was best for the institute.

“I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t motivated by what they believed to be in the best interests of students and the community,” Olson said. “My gratitude for that is boundless.”

Future plans

In the future, Olson hopes the university continues on the path that his predecessors set out on long before his tenure.

“That journey is that Winona State aspires to be academically excellent and to be student focused and student centered,” he said.

Olson said he hopes the university continues to serve students who might not otherwise have access to high quality higher education.

He hopes the university also focuses on being the best, not the biggest.

“I think we would lose the essence of who we are. And I think in the end, it would so change our relationship with the community of Winona and the region,” he said.

As for his new role as chancellor, Olson’s goals match those that the system has determined for its future.

Two major goals currently set out by the system, Olson said, are NextGen and Equity 2030.

Olson said NextGen is a technology update that will be “super important to our students, but maybe a little less apparent to the outside public.”

The update will include a new records system that will enable students to better plan their academic future, allowing them to create a more efficient path to graduation.

Equity 2030, Olson explained, is a goal set up by the system to enable all individuals to reach success, no matter the hardships they may face in life.

Olson said with Equity 2030, “everybody’s got the same shot, everybody’s got the same opportunity. And people who want to work hard and fulfill their hopes and dreams, the highways open and clear to do that.”