Olson Takes Helm as Provost
Fall 2009 Issue | By Andy Taylor
Read more of Olson's columns at the Academic Affairs site
Gary Olson has come a long way as a writer from his childhood home in Connecticut where, as a second grader, he used to create his own newspaper chronicling mundane neighborhood matters on large sheets of drafting paper that his father would bring home from his job as a sheet metal worker.
Olson inherited his family’s love for books and writing, a passion that became his life’s work.
As ISU’s new provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Olson continues to write, but now on a much less provincial stage: he writes a monthly column about academic administration for “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” the nation’s premier academic weekly publication covering events and issues in postsecondary education. He also pens a weekly newspaper column, University Beat, for the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello.
As a scholar he has published nearly two dozen books and 100 scholarly articles, book chapters and interviews. His most recent book, The Future of Higher Education: Thoughts from America’s Academic Leaders (coedited with John Presley) was released this summer. As an administrator, Olson has an extensive background, too, most recently as dean of the Illinois State University College of Arts and Sciences.
He’d probably be writing even more, but his demanding duties as provost prevent that. Olson has always engaged in both scholarship and administrative work throughout his 30-plus years in academia, focusing more on the former early on and emphasizing the latter as his career progressed.
“Early in my career I made a conscious decision not to go full time into academic administration,” Olson said. “I wanted to make my career first as a scholar, which is the reason most of us go into academia in the first place. We’re driven by a passion for our scholarly discipline and hope to make a difference by adding to the field’s knowledge base.
“I think I accomplished that,” Olson added. “And so I decided that it was time to devote myself to administrative work.”
For Olson, making a difference is the key to both sides of academia’s coin.
“Being an administrator affords you an opportunity to make a difference in a wider venue with a broader focus,” he said. “This is one of the most rewarding, exciting and demanding jobs you can have because you can make a difference for the entire institution.”
Olson is directing his new focus on helping ISU President Arthur Vailas carry out his vision for the institution.
“I think Idaho State University is a top-quality institution that is poised to rise to the next level of excellence,” he said. “The Vailas administration is serious about concentrating on increasing our national reputation, strengthening the scope and breadth of our research profile, and becoming more competitive with our national peers on all levels. I have been surprised by the huge potential this institution has for moving forward on multiple levels.”
As provost, Olson oversees all the academic colleges, the Eli M. Oboler Library, the Idaho Museum of Natural History, and part of the university’s information technology services. He is also a primary contact and liason for the university with other national and international universities on all academic issues.
“There is a rhythm to this kind of work,” Olson said. “It can make for an intense work day because the scope of the job is so large. One has to learn to multi-task in the extreme. One minute you can be dealing with minutiae, the next with hammering out a multi-million dollar agreement.”
Olson assumed his post at a challenging time, during one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history, which has limited funding for higher education.
“We are facing fiscal challenges, but nevertheless we are getting over that hurdle and, in fact, are still moving forward with our vision,” Olson said. “Idaho State University can be a truly great institution much faster than most people might believe.”