The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Denise Lach Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

July 21, 2015


Denise Helen Lach was born in 1955 in Norman, Oklahoma; her family moved to Rosemont, Minnesota - a small town outside of Minneapolis - not long afterward. A strong student growing up, Lach enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1972 and graduated four years later with a bachelor's of science degree in English and Education.

After completing her studies at Minnesota, Lach moved to Chicago, where she began teaching junior high English. Two years later, she found a similar job in the Twin Cities, where she taught for two more years before changing career paths and beginning work at a management consulting firm. Lach spent four years with the company, travelling frequently and at one point visiting Corvallis.

During this time, Lach met and later married her husband, who was a graduate student in forestry at the University of Minnesota. After he graduated, he was offered a job at Oregon State University, and the couple subsequently moved to Corvallis. Once arrived, Lach began working for OSU in the Productivity Center, where she was given responsibilities similar to her former duties at the consulting firm.

Being at OSU inspired Lach to return to school, and she began by taking statistics classes and working as a teaching assistant in the Statistics department. From there she began applying to graduate schools and ultimately joined the University of Oregon's Sociology program in the mid-1980s. While in Eugene, she studied organizational behavior and worked as both a teaching and research assistant. Lach completed her master's degree at Oregon in 1988 and followed that up with a Ph.D. in 1992.

After completing her doctorate, Lach and her husband moved to Seattle, where she worked as a research sociologist at Battelle Seattle Research Centers. At Battelle, Lach focused on the social aspects of various environmental issues, including clean-up, community action, and environmental justice. Much of this work was both applied and interdisciplinary, involving scientists and professionals from a variety of other fields.

In 1996, Lach moved back to Corvallis to serve as director of the Human Dimensions Program at the newly formed Center for the Analysis of Environmental Change (CAEC), a collaborative enterprise funded by Battelle, OSU, and two other institutions. Lach likewise received an appointment as assistant professor in OSU's department of Sociology. Near the end of the 1990s, the head of the CAEC retired and Lach became its new director. In this capacity, she began collaborating with Ken Williamson, head of OSU's Water Research Institute, and the two centers merged in 2000. This new institute was called the Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability (CWEST), and Lach served as its co-director. During her years at CWEST, Lach focused primarily on drought and water management, and was notably involved with the Klamath Falls Reclamation initiative that was spurred by the region's water crisis in 2001.

In 2003, Lach began co-directing the Salmon 2100 Project, a collaboration between CWEST and the EPA Lab in Corvallis. Two years alter, Lach and Williamson disbanded CWEST and created the Institute for Water and Watersheds (IWW), hiring a new full-time director and then stepping down from their own administrative responsibilities. At this point, Lach moved to the Sociology faculty full-time, and began pursuing research and teaching as a tenure track member of the department. A recipient of the Robert J. Frank Research, Scholarship, and Creativity Award from the OSU College of Liberal Arts in 2008, Lach was promoted to full professor in 2010. Her research interests have included analyses of changing roles and expectations for science and scientists in natural resource decision making, institutional resistance to changes in the water sector, and transformation of water resources governance structures.

In 2010, the College of Liberal Arts underwent major changes when its collection of departments merged into six schools. As part of this process, Sociology combined with the departments of Political Science and Economics to form a new School of Public Policy. Lach was named the first director of the school, and continues to serve in that capacity to this day.