More Than Steady as She Goes: Honoring Donna Olsson for 20 Years of Service for Biological Sciences at UC Davis

Donna Olsson
After 24 years at UC Davis, Donna Olsson says farewall. Courtesy Photo

Facilitating the transition from a division to a college can be a tricky business. After major academic issues are addressed, how do you navigate and incorporate the collective administrative interests of so many involved groups? And more importantly, how do you do it all in a way that actually accomplishes goals, on a budget—or better yet—under budget?

Ask Donna Olsson, executive assistant dean for finance and administration, a position she has held for two decades. She also holds some of these answers, along with many others, stored within immense vaults of institutional knowledge and experience.

“It is difficult to imagine that Dean’s office without Donna,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “She has been the stalwart lead administrator in the college for our entire history.  Her deep knowledge of the college, her connections around campus and her leadership through thin and thick will all be missed.” 

While not a scientist, Olsson’s approach is the kind of career-cumulative, data-driven inquiry that a biologist might become renowned for. Identify an opportunity, map and test a strategy to achieve it, operationally refine for best results, and bank the knowledge gained along the way. You could say she learned a lot from rubbing shoulders with scientists. But Olsson wasn’t just analyzing budgets, she was helping to build an entire college from the financial foundation, on up.

“Looking back, I helped seven deans develop recruitment funding plans for over half the current CBS faculty; I helped chairs/directors hire most of the current CAOs, worked with terrific staff, and participated in financial planning for many, many projects,” Olsson said. “It feels great that we’ve achieved so much, working together.”

Marshalling resources

When Olsson was hired by then Division of Biological Sciences Dean Mark McNamee in 2000, the transition from evaluating and managing budgets at the UC Davis Budget Office and the California Legislative Analyst's Office offered a new type of financial mystery to solve. Well-versed in the University of California budget and fascinated by puzzles, she embraced her analytical penchant for fitting the pieces together. Olsson joined UC Davis as a principal analyst, then became assistant director of budget in 1996, and four years later, settled into her current role, from which she retires on Friday, May 15. 

As executive assistant dean for finance and administration, Olsson strategically guides and manages the college-wide budget; administration; personnel; information technology; liability prevention; and financing of capital and facilities projects. She has strategized to help modernize lab space, developed funding mechanisms to bring projects to life and created process workflows to improve office operations in areas like human resources, finance and IT.

Mark McNamee and Donna Olsson
From the photo vault: former CBS Dean Mark McNamee (left) hired Donna Olsson in 2000. Courtesy Photo

Sailing the sea change

As Olsson reflected on her 24-year career at UC Davis, she highlighted how much has changed, not just technologically, but socially and culturally. One of her guiding principles has been to pilot new tools. It’s an operational attitude that Olsson has sought to model by example. To Olsson, leadership by example is a litmus test of authenticity. Practically minded, she sees authenticity and understanding as essential for setting policy priorities and developing effective teams to meet the needs of the college.

“My role in planning for the future involves a combination of listening, strategic thinking, analysis, and follow-through with many, many people,” Olsson said.

Among Olsson’s proudest achievements are helping to establish permanent operating budgets for the Center for Neuroscience, Center for Population Biology and Genome Center in the early 2000s. Most recently, she helped facilitate the complex financing approval process through the Administrative Coordinating Council of Deans (ACCD) for the new cryo-electron microscope in  Briggs Hall, which will significantly advance structural biology research at UC Davis. 

“I love that life sciences research can address so many of society’s issues; learning about research in the departments and centers is the most fascinating part of being in CBS,” Olsson said.

Looking toward the horizon

When asked what advice she would pass along to a UC Davis student interested in public administration and budgetary planning, Olsson emphasized the need for adaptability, especially when it comes to developing more innovative funding sources to ensure financial independence and long-term sustainability. She sees the need for effective space use to be one of the most critical challenges to lab-based research activity. Olsson also expressed the need to continually improve HR and workplace training to meet and protect the evolving needs of university employees.

The pragmatism Olsson displays has been especially significant and helpful as the college recently pivoted to launch its first completely digital undergraduate course delivery for the spring quarter. Olsson credits excellence from both staff and faculty—including so many great chairs, program directors, chief administrative officers and IT and other staff.  She has commandeered a steady financial tack and her prudent planning has helped prepare the College of Biological Sciences for the choppy waters of a potentially imminent global recession.

“Donna brought an amicable and supportive style to her work with the Deans office staff—including working with green, new Deans—many of whom look to her as a role model and mentor,” Dean Winey.  “CBS will move forward and Donna can be proud of the organization where she has been so influential in its success.

“I want to say thanks so much to Dean Mark Winey, CBS faculty and staff, and colleagues campus-wide. I truly love working with so many people who are passionate about the public university mission of UC Davis,” Olsson said.

Olsson earned a Master's of Public Policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and a Bachelor’s of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Despite her retirement, she’ll remain a local in the area and may look in from time to time to see how the college continues to grow, from modest beginnings, toward destinations life sciences have yet to chart. Cathy Miller will serve as acting executive assistant dean through June 12.

In lieu of personal gifts, Donna has asked that colleagues wishing to acknowledge her retirement to give to the CBS Staff Recognition Awards. This fund helps support staff service recognition awards and other awards and events for CBS staff: