After nearly 20 years working in and leading the State history department, Chris Olsen takes the wheel of the College of Arts and Sciences.
This summer, Christopher Olsen climbed into the driver’s seat as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana State.
What people may not know is that this is not a normal occurrence. It’s not often colleges welcome a new dean. But it’s even more unusual when a professor is given that opportunity at the university where he’s taught for 18 years.
The position needs to be open when a professor is ready to make that transition — and it’s usually filled. And when there is an opening for a dean, candidates need to be at the right point in their lives and careers. It’s a pair of factors that don’t often align.
“The fact that this came open at a point in my life when I was able to apply for it and felt like I was ready to do it, that’s just a piece of good luck in timing. I feel privileged that I get a chance to do this and that they want to give me a chance to do it.”
If the position hadn’t come open, Olsen said he hadn’t planned on looking for deanships at other schools, because he didn’t want to leave State.
During his time as professor and history department chair at State, Olsen had opportunities at other schools. “I came here in 1999,” Olsen said. “I’ve always stayed because I like it here.”
Olsen grew up in Fargo, N.D., and went to North Dakota State for his undergraduate degree. After receiving a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska, a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and teaching at Virginia Wesleyan College, Olsen and his wife, Jennifer, came to Indiana.
This is where they are raising their three children, Emma, 17, Charlotte, 15, and Ross, 13, and they enjoy the Terre Haute community. “It’s very similar to where I grew up and the school that I went to,” Olsen said. “So it feels like home in lots of ways.”
What people at State do know about Olsen, after teaching there for almost three decades, is his passion for history. “Teaching is a real privilege,” he said. “You get to spend so much of your life basically talking to people about what you love.”
How would his students describe him? “Probably demanding!” Olsen said. “I usually have lots of comments about how much reading and writing there is.”
Because history is a collection of stories, Olsen said he hears comments that he tells good stories, where his enthusiasm for the subject matter comes through. “They would probably say things like ‘demanding,’ sometimes ‘overwhelming,’ but I think ‘engaging.’”
Olsen’s father, a former historian, sparked his love of history. “My mother was a librarian and loved history, too, and we traveled all the time,” he said.
When his father received a Fulbright to teach in England, the family lived in the U.K. for a year. Olsen learned the value of travel and immersive experience in another culture, something that’s high on his agenda to support in his new role at State.
“Travel was and remains for me a transforming experience,” Olsen said. “I think part of what college is about is learning how to interact with and understand different people. If we do one thing, we hopefully do that.”
As dean, Olsen inherits a position in a school where he feels there isn’t a lot of change needed, but sees it as a chance to go further with established programs and curricula. He sees the natural growth of inter-disciplinary programs like sustainability, which intersects several departments — economics, environmental science and history, among others.
What isn’t well known at State about Olsen is his love of cars — another passion inherited from his father who collected cars for 65 years. “From a very young age, I was working on cars,” Olsen said.
When Olsen was 14, his father bought him a ’71 MG, Olsen’s ride through high school and college — one he still has and drives from time to time.
He has two other classic cars: an ’87 Jaguar and a ’49 Jaguar that has right-hand drive. “It’s actually one that my dad brought back from England when we lived there,” he said. “We have pictures of me at 2 years old sitting on the bumper of the car. He paid pretty much $300 as-is for that one. I think he spent twice as much to ship it home!”
Growing up, Olsen spent weeks in the garage with his father and the 10 or 11 cars his dad had at any given time, he recalled. However, he said he doesn’t have much time to spend tinkering anymore, but enjoys keeping the cars in working order and driving them around town when he can.
Time with his cars will be at even more of a premium as dean, Olsen expects, while his enthusiasm for working with faculty and students goes into fifth gear.
He will still teach a class or two every year and looks forward to working with the Arts and Sciences faculty. “I enjoy the never-ending puzzle of finding ways to help them do what they want to do,” he said, whether that’s creating a new program, writing a book or getting a research grant.
“There might be 100 great ideas in a week,” he said. “You can’t do all of them, but it’s fun to try and help some of those get done. That’s always going to be the most enjoyable part of the job.”