From studying communications and culture in the Arctic to consulting for Hyundai in Korea, Winona State University (WSU) President Scott Olson’s previous work has been varied and far-reaching. The new WSU head is also an award-winning film producer and a published author on subjects ranging from business to education. Olson says that while he enjoys the fast-pace and the excitement that comes with leadership, he also loves studying and writing. One of his favorite subjects is the connection between culture and communication, especially through film. Recently, Olson has been busy making connections and directing the university’s efforts, but when he has time, he will sneak in a movie and indulge himself with a little cultural analysis.
Take “The Lion King,” for example. In his 1999 book “Hollywood Planet,” Olson says the Disney film helps to explain the world-wide appeal of Hollywood cinema. The secret to its global success, he says, is that people from all over the world can find elements of their own culture in the film. To Christians, the scene when Simba is anointed with dye and held up to the whole animal kingdom is reminiscent of baptisms. To Jews, it is reminiscent of a circumcision celebration. “Every culture has certain rituals with infants to honor their transition into society,” Olson explained. People around the world identify with that scene, and the whole movie, because it can be seen through their own culture, he writes.
Olson was first exposed to that concept, which he calls “transparency,” from a fellow graduate student from Nigeria who loved the American TV show “Dallas,” because, to him, the show’s main character seemed exactly like a trickster from Nigerian folklore. “Dallas” and “The Lion King” transcend American culture and bring their stories down “to an elemental level that connects to all kinds of people,” Olson said.
Olson has made a splash on the production end of videos, as well, as a producer and screenwriter. A 2002 documentary on a digital learning system called “Squeakers,” which Olson produced, won the Cine Golden Eagle Award, as well as Emmy Awards.
After graduating college and working briefly as an animator, Olson thought that film production would be his future. “But what happened was I fell in love with the subject and the study of filmmaking” rather than filmmaking itself, Olson said. That led him to pursue graduate degrees in communication and go on to teach courses on screenwriting and mass media.
During his doctoral work, Olson travelled to the Alaskan and Scandinavian Arctic, comparing communication and its impact on the culture of the Inupiat, or Alaskan Eskimos, and the Sami, Scandinavian reindeer herders. While his colleagues visited tropical locales, “I got sent to the Arctic,” Olson laughs. He stayed in Barrow, Alaska, at the extreme northern tip of the Americas. While it was not his ideal vacation destination, Olson said it was fascinating to compare the use of media by the two indigenous groups.
Olson discovered academic administration by accident. He was teaching at Central Connecticut State University when college administrators coaxed him into filling in as an assistant dean for a year. “I hated it,” Olson said. “I made it clear that I really didn’t want to do that. At the end of it, I said, ‘Thank you for the opportunity, but I’m going back to the classroom where I really belong.’ So I went back to the department, and son of a gun if I didn’t miss it.”
“Something went terribly wrong,” Olson laughed. “I don’t know why I missed it, I was so happy to get out of there. Maybe part of it was that in administrative jobs you are just constantly moving, moving, moving all the time. There’s a lot of adrenaline with them, and that is fun.”
Olson took the next available administration job and has not looked back since. He has, however, found time to write about Polish media, horror films, education, and product placement while serving as a Dean at Ball State University and Acting President at Minnesota State University in Mankato. “I’m more a writer than anything else, just a little more extroverted than many,” Olson said.
He added that writing and teaching are still his true loves. “I still love all that stuff, and one day I hope to return to it. The way I would love to end my career is the way I began it, and that’s in the classroom. That’s the greatest joy: working with students.”
Olson’s global perspective and background in changing worlds of media and education should serve him well as he guides the university in providing 21st-century education. Revamping the university’s education program and building on community partnerships are the top of his to-do list.
“We need to be trusting of who we’ve been [as a university], but also be transformational,” Olson said. As with Nigerian “Dallas” fans, Olson hopes WSU can capitalize on new trends and change old ways without losing its identity.
Olson grew up outside Minneapolis and received his bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees at Northwestern University. He lives with his wife Kelley, their cat, and their dog. They are empty-nesters with two college-aged daughters.