Dr. Shari L. Olson
Shari L. Olson was appointed president of South Mountain Community College (SMCC) in 2011. In this role, she is responsible for the overall leadership of the college — which serves more than 6,000 students each year, and employs approximately 215 full-time and 495 part-time employees.
Dr. Olson has more than 35 years of community college administrative and teaching experience. Throughout her career, she has remained committed to strengths-based leadership and developing the best in her students and colleagues. Prior to her appointment as president, she served in administrative roles in Minnesota, including interim president at Anoka Technical College; system director of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities; and Assistant Professor of Graduate Education at Bemidji State University. From 1995-2007, she held several outreach, planning, administrative services and technology positions as vice president, dean and director at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, MN. She also served as president of Eastern Wyoming College and director and faculty member in early childhood education at United Tribes Technical College.
In Dr. Olson’s prior roles, she established external partnerships and education programs with business and industry, and implemented college-wide diversity initiatives. She has also been responsible for the leadership of integrated planning and budgeting, business services, facilities and building maintenance, information technology services, and auxiliary services.
Over the past nine years, under Dr. Olson’s leadership, SMCC continues to see results in student engagement. Every three (3) years (2014, 2017 and 2020), SMCC participates in the Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) with Noel Levitz and scored above the national benchmark in all five areas: active and collaborative learning, student effort, academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, and support for learners, with the largest increase in academic challenge and student-faculty interaction. In Fall of 2018, student success in college level courses increased to 78 percent compared to 71 percent in 2012. This direct support for students means more students are successfully completing: total graduates have increased from 319 in 2011 to 418 in 2019, while the total number of degrees and credentials awarded also rose, from 696 in 2011 to 1,016 in 2019.
SMCC also continues to receive national recognition for its ongoing efforts under Dr. Olson’s leadership for four consecutive terms (2015, 2017, 2019, 2021) the college has been named an Aspen Prize Top 150 U.S. Community College. The Prize, awarded every two years, is the nation’s signature recognition of high achievement and performance among America’s community colleges and recognizes institutions for exceptional student outcomes in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings, and access and success for minority and low-income students.
The Bellwether College Consortium annually recognizes outstanding and innovative programs and practices that are successfully leading community colleges into the future. The college has been named a top 10 finalist for the Bellwether award for the following initiatives: 2015 - Foundations Academy, 2016 - Creating Jobs, 2017 - Foundations Academy: Developing Students, 2017 - Business Innovation, and 2020 – SMCC Default Rate Success: 2012-2016 and Beyond. In 2018, SMCC was named by College Choice as #11 in the top 50 community colleges in America for 2017. In April 2018, SMCC received the Award of Excellence for Community College Safety, Leadership and Planning from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
Dr. Olson has received numerous honors during her career, including the 2019 Phi Theta Kappa Shirley B. Gordon Award; the 2014 National Association of Community College Entrepreneurship President of the Year award; the 2011 Minnesota State College Student Association President of the Year award and the 2008 Chair Academy Exemplary International Leader Award.
Dr. Olson is a first-generation college student and earned a doctoral degree from the University of North Dakota, a master’s degree from North Dakota State University, and a bachelor’s degree, with honors, from the same institution. She is a member of Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Upsilon Omicron, and an honorary member of Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society.
Every summer, Dr. Olson coordinates a walk for cancer research in Minnesota. Over the past 25 years, she has donated all proceeds, totaling more than $35,000 to the University of Minnesota, Women’s Cancer Research fund.
Dr. Olson is married to Richard H. Nikunen Jr., who serves as the Head Men’s Basketball Coach and Psychology Faculty at Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minnesota.
Achiever | Learner | Maximizer | Intellection | Strategic
Check out the expanded story about Dr. Olson by the South Phoenix Oral History Project!