Photo by Kyle Kotajarvi
Winona State University (WSU) President Dr. Scott Olson laughs with guests at the 2012 Homecoming Pep Fest. Olson incorporates his passion for lifelong learning into his list of long-term goals to bring WSU into the future.
Only eight months on the job as the 15th president of Winona State University (WSU), and Dr. Scott Olson can cross living in the dorms and learning to love the color purple off his collegiate list of to-dos. Former Minnesota State University, Mankato, provost turned Warrior, Olson is armed with a passion for lifelong learning and the drive to better the educational institution as a whole. As he sets his sights on an even brighter future for WSU, he holds steadfast to three distinct goals: building community partnerships, redefining the College of Education, and staying ahead of the curve.
While small living quarters with bunk beds and shared facilities may be ideal for first year college students, it wasn't the dream home Olson envisioned for himself when he first came to town. However, the Mankato transplant relished the opportunity to spend his first semester living with some of WSU's finest in Lourdes Hall on the west campus until he could find suitable housing in the city. The opportunity, he said, reaffirmed his dedication to the students. He and his wife, Kelly, are now in a house in Winona, and he had to bid his hall mates farewell.
Recently, Olson sat down with WSU faculty, board members and students to discuss the changing future of the bluff country university. A community-wide survey which received overwhelming response was conducted asking for new ideas to help usher the school into the future."We've had a lot of recent conversation about the next chapter of Winona State University, and there is a sense of pride and hope for our future," Olson said. The survey amassed more than 750 different ideas ranging from modern architectural concepts and unique academic offerings to changing the student recruitment process and building a new athletic facility. "The ideas are all over the place. However, the challenge with all these ideas is finding a commonality. We have to strike a balance between an idea that is transformational with one that will elicit enough buy-in."
Building community partnerships
As the oldest member in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, WSU has been a thriving, living piece of history in Winona since 1858. The university is a leader in connecting students with hands-on experiences that both strengthen the partnerships with city businesses and institutions, and enrich the lives of all involved.
At the top of Olson's list of long-term goals is fostering existing community partnerships and building more. He praised the work of university outreach programs, but said he is still searching for a way to "better engage with the region."
"Winona State University has been a very good partner to the community over the years and I think the people are very invested in this university," Olson said. Through its community-based academics, students are studying biology courses that take them to the Wapasha Community Gardens, theater courses that give them an entree into the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and tourism recreation courses that allow them to help promote the city of Winona. "The trick is finding that right partnership that stays true with who we are, but is also something people can really rally behind."
Redefining the College of Education
Founded more than 150 years ago as a higher education institution dedicated to preparing "teachers for the common schools of the state," WSU was the first tax-supported school west of the mighty Mississippi River that was established to train teachers. As the campus grew and new careers emerged, the curriculum shifted to adapt to changing times. However, the College of Education remained a constant.
Throughout the last five years, the college has had its fair share of trying times. A shift in leadership left many in the department feeling uneasy, sending the college into what Dr. James Schmidt, Vice President for University Advancement, said was "unsettled chaos."
"We were just unable to find that right fit between leadership and student relations," Olson said of a recent addition to the college's leadership. "I'm not besmirching the previous leadership, but the faculty wasn't satisfied with the direction of the college."
Shortly before the 2012-2013 academic year began, former WSU education professor Janice Sherman, who recently retired from her teaching post, was hired as the interim dean. Olson said Sherman is a better fit.
"[Janice] brought credibility, respect, and collegiality. You could literally see the morale increasing," Olson explained. "She has been doing a phenomenal job of helping turn this college around and she agreed to stay on for next year. She brings a stabilizing influence."
As the demand for highly skilled science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and special education teachers continues to rise throughout Minnesota, Olson said the College of Education is looking into redesigning its curriculum in hopes of becoming a “primary school for education.”
“There are some new ideas coming about and we are going to be bold,” Olson admitted. “Faculty in the college are feeling like their reach is being lengthened and that they are able to think further and further down the road, dream a little bit. It’s really about teaching teachers.”
When a student in the College of Education reaches 300 level courses, typically third year students, hands-on clinical training begins. Students will engage in approximately 10-20 hours of on-site training in their specific age group of study. However, Olson said clinical experience is sometimes a deciding factor for students, and some should be offered earlier in their course of study.
“Nationwide, half of teachers who graduate with a teaching degree leave the field within five years,” Olson said. “So, instead of doing clinicals in junior and senior year, we should have them get that experience when they are freshman. Get them into that profession as soon as possible. [We need to] drain the moat around campus and get these students into the community.”
Olson said he plans to speak with College of Education staff and faculty soon to discuss the needed changes within the college and to introduce the possibility of new facilities.
“Earlier in the history of the college, Winona State was a world leader in education,” Olson said. “We need to return to our roots and become a leader again.”
An advantageous aspect of the WSU campus is its private institution atmosphere. The historical architecture, elegantly landscaped grounds, and scenic surroundings earned it a number two spot on the list of “Best Regional Universities” in U.S. News and World Report’s 2012 edition of “Best Colleges.”
“Typically, this is not the kind of experience you would get at most public universities,” Olson said. “Often, these types of campuses have an aloofness, a kind of ivory tower thing. Yet, we must balance relevance and responsiveness to provide the best collegiate experience to students coming on campus.”
One way Olson said WSU is keeping up with changing times is researching the methods of delivery that have recently made their way across college campuses. While e-learning, or online learning, is not a recent phenomenon, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are.
While some are still in developmental stages, a MOOC allows a university to offer no-cost, non-credited courses to an infinite number of online learners. One online MOOC facilitator, EdX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, already offers courses from distinguished schools such as Wellesley, University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University.
“It’s not necessarily a cheaper alternative, but it is cheaper in the way that the course could facilitate a lot more students [than in a classroom],” Olson said. “Those classes are automated, a lot less intimate. Winona State University is known for its personal experience, not huge class sizes. By the end of the year the college professor is going to know you by name.”
Currently, 25 percent of WSU classes are online. Unlike the MOOCs, enrolled students pay for the course and receive a letter grade or certification. Olson said online courses work well for non-traditional students, but he prides the university on its niche of providing excellent student-teacher contact.
“Maybe the MOOC is a more hybrid style of learning, with the big online courses. But on the other hand, it could be a threat to us,” Olson said. “So far, the for-profit folks are more expensive than we are. What we do well is provide high quality classroom experience in a great community.”
In the coming months, Olson said he and his constituents will dig into the details of the campus-wide survey and the ideas will be categorized based on broader topics such as facilities needs, academic programs, and student experience.
“We need to respect this process and set up the proper groups to go through these ideas,” Olson said. “We need to be trusting of who we’ve been [as a university], but also be transformational.
“We can’t lose sight of helping students learn how to learn,” he added. “Being a learned person means enjoying life. We have to prepare these students for the world they will be entering into.”