At Winona State Olson struggled with year after year of enrollment losses – down one-third from 8,800 students when he arrived to 6,100 last fall. The losses reflected a national trend, and Olson was not faulted. In fact, he was credited with handling concomitant budget losses by folding the unionized WSU faculty and staff, as well as students, into a wide range of initiatives to deal with ongoing financial crises. He kept his word that layoffs would be only a last, last resort. He instead didn’t replace faculty who left due to retirements and personal choice. He also offered attractive buyouts that encouraged early retirements.

Olson saved a bundle of expenses by shutting down the West Campus, a failed experiment he inherited from the 1990s at the former College of St. Teresa. The budget crises, however, didn’t slow improvements to the physical plant under Olson at the main campus, many of them with cutting-edge environmentally sensitive technology.

As a builder Olson acquired the former Cotter parochial school facilities  near campus and remodeled them into what was called the Education Village for teacher training. New dorms were built to replace aging dorms. A Winona architectural treasure, the Laird-Norton lumber headquarters downtown, was acquired as an art and design center.

Olson was committed to creating a larger campus presence of aides, faculty and students of color. Some hiring choices were seriously flawed and short-lived, but there was a general campus sympathy for Olson’s goal of more racial, ethnic and gender equity. Most of his hires from communities of color worked out well.

One crisis that could have done Olson in was a scandal involving basketball coach Mike Leaf. A basketball player claimed that Leaf molested him at a drunken gathering at Leaf’s home.  Just about everyone knew Leaf had a serious drinking problem. In fact there was a police record. But, after leading Winona State to two national basketball championships, the coach’s problem was generally overlooked – even though Leaf was widely known to show up at practices and even games smelling of alcohol. Olson fired Leaf after the player made a public issue of the assault and teammates backed him up. But the question was: Why had the coach been cut so much slack over so many years? It was inconceivable that Olson and also Athletic Director  Eric Schoh was unaware of Leaf’s demons. Sensing his own jeopardy, Olson avoided an external, independent investigation by hiring a Winona State-friendly attorney to investigate — and carefully crafted the question to be examined to deflect a conclusion that he  or Schoh were either knowledgeable or culpable. The ploy worked, partly because the Winona news media didn’t examine the conclusion of the investigation carefully. It was a successful Teflon tactic by Olson, which succeeded in part because he was well liked as president.

Olson recognized long-standing enmity and resentment that had simmered toward the university for generations among blue-collar sectors in town. Rather than exacerbate town-and-gown tensions, Olson backed down when confronted. This happened when the university sought to build a baseball field at Lake Park. It happened again when the university proposed a property swap for the Kwik Trip convenience store at Huff and Sarnia streets to move student parking nearer to campus. The objections seemed a knee-jerk reaction driven by a townie leave-us-alone mentality against change. These were battles Olson deemed not worth fighting.

Olson succeeded Judith Ramaley as Winona State president. His collaborative management style contrasted with her autocratic style, and he was quickly welcomed.