The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Paul Risser Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Janice Dilg.

March 24 - 25, 2014


Born on September 14, 1939 in Blackwell, Oklahoma, Paul Gillan Risser earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Grinnell College in Iowa (1961) and both a master's degree in botany (1965) and a Ph.D. in botany and soils (1967) from the University of Wisconsin. He was a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma from 1967 to 1981 and served in several administrative positions at the University of Illinois from 1981 to 1986, including Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In addition, Risser was president (and professor of botany) at Miami University in Ohio from 1993 to 1996, prior to coming to OSU.

On November 2, 1995, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education named Risser to succeed John Byrne as the thirteenth president of Oregon State University; he began his presidency in January 1996. An internationally renowned botanist whose research interests include the structure and function of grassland and forest ecosystems, environmental planning and management, landscape ecology, and global change, Risser expanded OSU's Corvallis campus and facilitated the establishment of both the OSU-Cascades Campus in Bend and the extended campus online.

As president, Risser also emphasized the need for increased marketing and student recruitment and retention. His administration likewise oversaw the expansion of the Valley Football Center, the renovation of Weatherford Hall, the construction of Halsell Hall, Goss Stadium, the OSU softball complex, and the Truax indoor practice facility, and the groundbreaking for the Kelley Engineering Center. His efforts led to impressive research growth and, at the time, record enrollments at OSU, as well as a renewed push for excellence in engineering, the environmental sciences and athletics.

In November 2002, Risser, with his wife Les, left OSU for a position as chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, where he remained until 2006. Following that, he assumed the chairmanship of the University of Oklahoma Research Cabinet, coordinating and facilitating research across the university's three campuses. In 2007 Risser spent nine months as acting director of the Smithsonian National Museum of History. He returned to the Research Cabinet in 2008 and remained as chairman until his passing in July 2014.