A ‘rock’ in the Park Blocks

There was a time not too long ago when Portland State was far removed from its current status as Oregon’s largest university.

There was a time not too long ago when Portland State was far removed from its current status as Oregon’s largest university.

Instead of 49 acres of institutional sprawl, the campus consisted of a tight cluster of buildings lining Portland’s South Park Blocks. The focus was more on teaching than research, and few people were anticipating the explosive growth that would come to reshape the university.

That was the Portland State that Roy Koch stepped onto in 1982, after nearly a decade of education at Kent State, Ohio State University and Colorado State.

Landing a teaching job in the economic rut of the early 1980s was difficult and Koch, now provost and vice president for academic affairs, was just happy to be in Portland.

Koch, now 58, had been hired into the newly formed School of Engineering and Applied Science after receiving his doctorate in engineering from Colorado State, just as PSU was beginning to focus more on research.

“This was my first academic job,” he said. “I had a bunch of criteria for my first job. I was looking for an academic position. The early ’80s were a really bad time. The jobs were a little slim.”

After interviewing at some schools on the East Coast, Koch settled on Portland State. Despite growing up in Ohio, he had become a fan of the West Coast and the outdoor, active lifestyle it afforded while at Colorado State.

“I really enjoy the western United States,” Koch said. “The location, the opportunities in addition to professional, really were a factor in my decision. This was a relatively small place and I felt there was an opportunity to grow and expand.”

A recognizable face
Twenty-seven years later, Koch has become one of the most recognizable faces on campus and a key player in Portland State’s transformation from commuter school to urban research university.

Mark Gregory, associate vice president for finance and administration, has known Koch for 12 years and said he brings a unique perspective as someone who has been a faculty member, department chair and an administrator.

“I think he has a clear picture of the organization and how it works,” Gregory said. “He considers things from a lot of dimensions. He has an understanding of how a change might impact folks.”

Gregory called Koch easygoing and “quietly thoughtful,” something he said is a key to Koch’s effectiveness.

He also pointed out that Koch’s background in environmental science has been a factor as Koch has helped steer Portland State toward an agenda that heavily features sustainability.

“He is kind of key to the success of that [sustainability],” Gregory said. “You can’t point to something we’re doing better than that. He’s been kind of a rock.”

Koch points to Portland State landing the $25 million James F. Miller Foundation matching grant this past September as one of his proudest moments at the university, especially given his close ties to environmental science.

“A few years ago we decided that we were going to pick some areas that we were going to get good at. We chose sustainability,” he said. “We decided to focus on that for a whole number of reasons I felt were very logical and reasonable.”

The decision did weigh on Koch, however, as he acknowledged that doors to other opportunities would close. Even still, the grant represents a “validation” that the university made the right call by focusing its attention on sustainability.

Student Body President Hannah Fisher, who sits on the State Board of Higher Education’s sustainability committee with Koch, said his commitment to sustainability “isn’t just talk.”

“He’s charming. He’s very level headed. If I ever needed advice or help [as president], he’d be there for me,” she added.

A day in the life
Koch’s job is essential to the functioning of the university, but it is hardly glamorous. He said his job mostly consists of “a series of meetings from eight to five.” He said it with a laugh, but a quick look at his daily schedule reveals that it is no joke.

Koch assumed his current roles of provost and vice president in 2005 after returning to the faculty in 1997 as an environmental sciences professor. Prior to that Koch had been the vice provost for research and dean of graduate studies for five years.

He has also served as director of the science systems doctorate program, as well as a civil engineering professor.
While Koch said he sometimes misses teaching—his last graduate student finished her studies last year—he is continually challenged by his job in the administration.

“A day doesn’t go by when something happens that I’ve never thought of before,” Koch said. “It’s absolutely fascinating.”

Not just a job
Koch doesn’t treat his relationship with Portland State as merely a job. He’s a passionate supporter of Vikings athletics, and he was one of a handful of administrators to make the trek to Omaha, Neb., last year to watch the men’s basketball team play in its first-ever NCAA Tournament.

Koch has plenty to keep him busy outside of the university. He and his wife Donna have three children, and they are expecting their third grandchild in September.

He has noted on numerous occasions that this is his last job and he expects to retire a Viking.

“The faculty here, everybody has, actually, a huge commitment. It’s been a privilege to be a part of it. It’s quite remarkable, actually,” he said. “People here aren’t just your colleagues, they’re your friends. When you go out to a beer on Friday night, you’re probably going out with someone that you work with here.”