In February, the College welcomed its new president, Gary A. Olson, Ph.D. a nationally-known scholar, writer, and educator who was drawn to the leadership position by Daemen’s forward-looking curriculum.
“I saw a great fit at Daemen College with its modern academic programs, committed faculty, and personalized approach to teaching,” Dr. Olson explains. “My goal is to preserve and encourage this environment and to help find ways to support the great work that is being done by our faculty and staff.”
Dr. Olson comes to Daemen with a distinguished track record in higher education, a large body of work as an author and scholar, and a strong belief in the advantages of a private college. He most recently served as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Idaho State University, where he oversaw the university’s seven colleges as well as the state’s natural history museum.
A monthly columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education — a publication sometimes called the New York Times of the academic world — Dr. Olson is a keen observer of current trends in the nation’s colleges and universities. He sees private colleges such as Daemen as a key to the future of high-quality, higher education.
“Daemen can offer a high level of personal attention to students that is not possible at most public universities, where the student population may number in the tens of thousands,” he says. “At Daemen, we know how to take care of our students.”
Dr. Olson grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and his interests as a young man were many. They ranged from the intellectual (he was an avid chess player) to the technical — a shortwave radio enthusiast, he was briefly under FBI scrutiny in the early 1960’s for innocently receiving a signal from Radio Moscow in Russia. He is also skilled in Tang Soo Do, a form of martial arts karate, and competed in tournaments throughout the east, including at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Dr. Olson attended Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a private college he likens to Daemen for its size. He went on to the University of Connecticut, where he earned his M.A. in 19th Century British Literature. It was there that he took a somewhat nontraditional approach to graduate work, utilizing an interdisciplinary model of study combining rhetoric, epistemology and literary theory. This marked the first steps to his becoming the noted scholar of rhetoric that he is today.
The Power of Rhetoric
Dr. Olson’s graduate work in rhetoric — the study of the effective use of language — and in epistemology — the philosophical study of how we know what we know — led him to continue his work in a Ph.D. program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A terrifying kidnapping almost ended the story there. It may have been his knowledge of rhetoric that saved his life.
He was living in Columbia, South Carolina, and was a week away from finishing his Ph.D. dissertation before he would return to school. To support himself at the time, he managed a convenience store. One night, three boys entered the store with guns drawn in a robbery attempt. One of the boys ordered him out of the store and ominously began walking him toward a wooded area. Eventually, the youth ordered him to run for his life and he let Dr. Olson go. In the long, hundred-yard trek from the store to the wooded area, he tried to engage with his captor. “It’s not that I begged for my life; it’s that I questioned why he thought his actions were wise or even necessary,” Dr. Olson recalls. “When he finally let me go, it reinforced in me a lifelong belief in the efficacy of rhetoric and the power of language.”
The police captured the robbers after a high-speed chase and an exchange of gunfire, and following the event, Dr. Olson was able to finish his dissertation, more committed than ever to the study of rhetoric.
A National Reputation
While earning his Ph.D., Dr. Olson directed the Writing Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a tutorial service for both undergraduates and graduate students. With Ph.D. in hand, he took a similar position at the University of Alabama. From there, he implemented a developmental writing program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and served as program director.
Dr. Olson really started doing the work that he wanted to do when he joined the faculty at the University of South Florida (USF). With a national reputation as a scholar gained through his writing, he was recruited by USF to create a Ph.D. program in rhetoric, one that quickly became one of the top four or five programs of its type in the country.
Dr. Olson’s career at USF spanned 20 years. It was at USF that he was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would hone his skills as an administrator and steer him toward the next chapter of his professional life.
Creating a New University
In the early 2000s, the Florida state legislature mandated that USF transform one of its three branch campuses into a semi-autonomous institution. “The state wanted us to make the St. Petersburg campus a free-standing institution in its own right, so my colleague, Ralph Wilcox, and I had the almost unprecedented experience of creating a new university,” Dr. Olson explains.
Dr. Olson worked as provost with Dr. Wilcox, who served as chancellor, to create the new college. What should have been a five-year project was mandated by the state to be completed in two years, and the school had to be separately accredited, as well—an arduous, and some would think impossible, task. With Dr. Olson’s leadership, they did it. After completing this huge endeavor for USF, Dr. Olson decided it was time to build on that success and shift gears toward full-time administrative work.
Expertise in Administration
He was recruited as the new dean of Arts and Sciences at Illinois State University (ISU), the university’s largest college, and he built a long list of accomplishments over a fiveyear term, especially in the area of supporting faculty teaching and research. It was at ISU that he began writing a monthly column on higher education administration for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
From ISU, he was recruited by Idaho State University for his established expertise in academic administration. In addition to his duties as the chief academic officer, he served as professor of English before being nominated for the presidency of Daemen.
New Scholars in Town
Dr. Olson was named president of Daemen College at the end of 2012 and arrived here in February. His wife, Lynn Worsham, is a nationally known scholar of rhetoric and feminist theory, and has published eight books. Dr. Olson and Dr. Worsham have collaborated on a number of books together. “Lynn is a voracious reader and a true intellectual,” he says. “She’s a real role model for me and for the many doctoral students and junior faculty she has mentored over the years.”
Currently, Dr. Olson is completing the authorized biography of American literary theorist, legal scholar, academic, and public intellectual Stanley Fish. Also a New York Times columnist, Fish is thought to be one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century. As an author or editor of two of the four books currently published on Fish, Dr. Olson is considered by many to be the foremost scholar of the renowned intellectual’s work.
Seeing the Advantages
New to Western New York, Dr. Olson has quickly become a big fan of the area. “As much as I consider myself a New Englander, I actually like being in Buffalo better than where I grew up in nearby Connecticut,” he freely admits. “There’s more going on here, there’s more of a sense of excitement, and Daemen can take advantage of that energy.”
Among the top priorities he will focus on as president is raising the visibility of Daemen College to a broader audience. “While the school is already well-known with a great reputation, we want to promote Daemen on the next level, both regionally and nationally,” he explains.
The new president also looks to enhance external funding for the college, not only from donors but also from grants and other sources, such as corporate partners. “The two priorities work hand in hand — the more we make people aware of the great things going on at Daemen College, the more people will want to be a part of it,” Dr. Olson concludes.