Sandra Olson: The Woman Behind the Blueprint

photo: Todd Ehlers

It is no surprise that a lot of people have told Sandra Olson they wouldn’t want her job. As Director of Facilities at Worcester State University, Olson oversees a staff of 63 employees and all of Worcester State University’s buildings and property which covers over 57 acres and averages somewhere between 6-8,000 in traffic every day. Olson oversees overseers. Capital Planning & Improvements, Environmental Health, Safety & Sustainability, Building Services & Trades, Building & Grounds Operations and Maintenance and Residence Hall Facilities Services all fall within her purview. Her department is on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Okay, so: all building and reconstruction projects from beginning to end and all daily operations of the entire campus, “anything that you walk on, sit on, sleep on, eat, breath, flush, wash with . . .” as she put it, “the last thing you notice if we are doing our job well.” Olson maintains a keen interest in having people notice one thing right away: the overall appearance of campus properties, inside and out. Citing studies of families visiting campuses with prospective students, Olson explained the importance of aesthetic appeal: decisions are made in the first 30 minutes of those visits.

Thanks in no small part to improvements to school property that Olson played a key role in, Worcester State University gained national recognition in 2010 and 2011 as “Most Environmentally Responsible School” according to Princeton Review, and according to publisher Robert Franek, “[c]ollege bound students are increasingly interested in sustainability issues”: how ‘green’ a school is has become another important factor in potential students’ considerations. Worcester State is committed to becoming “climate neutral.” This is all good, but it can be complicated business.

Olson said that delays in reconstruction of the Learning Services Center had a lot to do with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the old window caulking. As she explains it, they do an “environmental scan” of buildings slated or under consideration for reconstruction and knowing the dates of a building’s original construction and materials used at the time tells them what to expect to have to deal with so they knew about the PCBs early in the process but since they must be disposed of in specific ways this involved a stream of proposals and reviews going back and forth between her offices and the Environmental Protection Agency: the problem is there is only one EPA representative in the entire eastern region who handles these things.

Olson’s academic background is in electrical engineering and business management. Her daily routine includes a lot of time spent working with two Facilities staff members who are mechanical engineers, overseeing project management. She said they spend a lot of time on programming, bidding processes, and dealing with interim arrangements which involve things like creating and looking after “swing spaces” where people and things that are temporarily displaced by reconstruction get “a new home” during reconstruction.

Students will soon see a “modular complex” constructed out of units delivered to the faculty parking lot behind the Sullivan Building. The facilities and housing currently in the old gym building will go there while that’s being torn down next month and the new facilities are under construction. That old gym building was built in 1958, so in the big picture, these things do take time.

Olson conveyed her pleasure in seeing all the students in the LSC library now and how well those completed areas are working; “there’s nothing more disheartening” she said, than building something that is designed poorly, that doesn’t serve the purpose it’s intended for and ends up being a “ghost town”. Olson takes great pains to avoid that, employing strategic maneuvers such as setting projects aside sometimes due to funding or other considerations which would prevent such an ideal outcome as can be seen upstairs in the LSC. Olson’s standard is to shoot for excellence; designing for state of the art facilities of a quality on par with the best private schools while working within the budgetary confines of a public institution with more limited resources.

Olson was presented with an award for Extraordinary Dedication in 2010. In her 9 or so years as Facilities Director at WSU, she has overseen $127 million in local projects, and another $115 million will go into projects slated over the next 3-4 years. Over the previous 20 years only $45 million in projects were completed altogether. To say Olson has a full plate would be an understatement: current project plans extend over the next 7 years. She said that they try to do a lot in what they call the “summer slam”; the period between the moment students leave at the end of the spring semester and when they get back for fall classes. So she doesn’t get much of a summer break either.

As to parking and other construction related inconveniences right now, one consolation Olson offered students is a reminder that as Alumni they will have access to everything that is not done yet. All projects will be completed eventually, but Sandra Olson’s job is never done.





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