As of January of this year, Minnesota has a new commissioner of the Office of Higher Education: Dennis Olson Jr. Olson was born and raised in Cloquet, Minnesota and is an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in American Indian Studies, Sociology and Communications. He also holds two master’s degrees in Liberal Studies and Education from the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
Previous to his current appointment, Olson was the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. He has spent much of his career in education and previously served as the director of the Office of Indian Education for the Minnesota Department of Education.
We had the opportunity to talk with Olson about his career, higher education and the needs of the state.
What stands out in your own higher education experiences?
“I attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as an undergraduate and had an amazing opportunity there to join the college of education’s team working with at-risk youth as an undergraduate research assistant. I helped coordinate federally funded grants working with American Indian high school students around the state, helping them prepare for life after high school. I had the opportunity to work with all 11 tribal nations in Minnesota and was able to continue some of that work as a graduate research assistant when I attended University of Minnesota Duluth, where I completed two master’s degrees. I then served as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s commissioner of education which was a political appointment. I oversaw the entire tribal education department from early childhood to higher ed.”
How has higher education impacted your life and career?
“For me higher education has been an opportunity to improve communities and in particular my own community. I recognized early that education was a key to opening numerous doors that wouldn’t be open for underserved youth. My mom was in higher ed her whole career. She started at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s and retired as the assistant director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center and was a tireless advocate for native students. I always looked up to her. I knew that if she was working that hard, it was a path that I should be on as well. I not only wanted to continue that legacy but I also wanted to open doors and pave the path that has been paved for me.”
What excites you about higher education?
“What excites me the most is also something that troubles me and it is that overall Minnesota is one of the most well educated states in the nation and we do incredibly well with overall performance metrics — what troubles me is that there are underlying race and ethnic gaps and there are a lot of predetermined outcomes for those who have been historically underserved. What excites me about that troubling information is that we can do something about it. I am really looking forward to the Walz’s administration giving us the ability to propose some really unique, innovative and courageous proposals to start tackling these gaps.”
How do you think higher education should address the state’s attainment gap?
“When we see that there are these troubling attainment gaps we know that we can no longer propose just equal opportunities for everyone. We need to get serious about equitable funding distributions. Only about 22 percent of our American Indian adults statewide have a higher education credential. This means we need to put a higher proportion of our resources into addressing those specific issues. There are programmatic answers, there are budgetary answers — there are also some things that we need to have the ability to try.”
What makes the State Grant program a good investment for Minnesota?
“When we put money in students pockets and remove potential barriers — that’s one less thing those students and families have to worry about. The student can then focus on what they need to focus on which is their studies and completing their higher ed program. Many Minnesotans are stressed out about the cost of college and the more we can insure that families have to borrow less and we have more money in students pockets — all the better. And that all comes from the State Grant. It’s certainly something the governor believes deeply in.”
What is the future of higher education?
“I think we have an opportunity to reimagine a little bit. Higher education has looked the same for centuries and there are new ways to think about higher education. I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in other state agencies. The governor has asked specifically for us to work more closely with the corrections system. Can we think differently about standardized tests and about admission requirements? One thing I’m most excited about is taking advantage of strong community partnerships. Early on, when I brought people to the table I recognized that there were some people missing — really getting out into the community and hearing from students and providing a space at the table for those who haven’t had a chance to be heard historically.”