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Paul Risser profile

The office is on the sixth, and top, floor of Oregon State University's red brick administration building. Shelves filled with books on science, leadership and other topics line the long wall across from the entrance. To the left there's a big window, with a computer situated nearby so while you visit the virtual world you can also watch students and faculty scurrying across the campus. Near the middle of the room there's a desk the size of a small sports car, for paperwork. Couches arranged for conversation dominate the other end of the rectangular room.

Man in suit sitting on a couch.

OSU President Paul Risser. Photo: Tom Gentle

All in all, the workspace isn't too shabby for a guy whose first job was tending chickens, cows and winter wheat on a farm outside Blackwell, Oklahoma, near the Kansas border.

"I grew up in a home where the mother, my mother, was very outgoing, vivacious. She still is. My father was straightforward and stern in life. He believed you sinned if you didn't do the best you could," explains Paul Risser, OSU's 13th president. "My twin brother and I did just about all the work on the farm. I was driving a tractor when I was 7 years old. Later, in high school, my brother and I believed we were being abused by our work responsibilities compared to our friends."

But it's not as if their dad was sipping lemonade in a hammock while he watched his kids sweat under the blazing prairie sun. The graduate of Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, operated a nursery--a greenhouse--in Blackwell. During World War II he commuted to Wichita, Kansas, to run the quality control lab in the chemistry division of a Boeing aircraft factory.

Just the same, OSU's dignified-looking, proper-sounding president seems to enjoy telling the story of his childhood travails. In part, one might speculate, to short-circuit any thoughts Oregonians might have about pointy-headed university professors.

Looking at the 57-year-old Risser's resume, it's easy to see how a person might erroneously conclude this is a fellow who doesn't know what it's like to get his hands dirty.

After he finished high school in 1957, he and his twin, Jim, went to their father's alma mater, Grinnell. Jim gravitated toward student government and earned a business degree. Today he's an executive with Ross Perot's company, Electronic Data Systems, in Dallas.

OSU's new president ran cross-country in college. He also raced through his studies. Before earning a degree in biology in 1961, he completed an independent project in plant tissue culture and a summer working on corn genetics at Iowa State University.

The summer experience in Iowa whetted his appetite for "high-powered university research," he recalls. He went to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master's degree in botany in 1965 and a doctorate in botany and soils two years later.

Next came a job as an assistant professor of botany at the University of Oklahoma. Besides teaching, Risser did the first systems analysis of water, carbon and nutrient flows on private rangelands. This research told appreciative ranchers some of the answers to basic questions such as "How much herbage should one take," says Risser. He also studied nutrient flows in forests.

As he rose through the academic ranks, he kept the research going. But he also became involved in administrative assignments. These included jobs such as assistant director of a field station where he led a National Science Foundation-funded project involving 40 postdoctoral researchers; chair of the university's Department of Botany and Microbiology; and a year as director of ecosystem studies at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

In 1986, the University of New Mexico named Risser its vice president for research. Several high-level assignments with prestigious national and international committees followed, including three years as president of Miami University in Ohio. Then, in January of 1996, came the presidency of OSU.

Until he came to Oregon, he'd always managed to maintain his research program. "I find now that being president of OSU captures all my attention," he says.

Risser feels his varied background is a plus for him as the head of a land grant university. "A lot of people seem to feel a little more confidence in me when they know I grew up on a farm. I was in 4-H. I've published articles in the Journal of Range Management and in Conservation Biology. I think I come at natural resource issues in a pretty balanced way. Gently, but straightforward."

He's impressed with the role OSU is playing with natural resource issues in the state. "OSU should be a friend of the court-not takes sides on issues but bring our best science to bear on them," he says. "In many areas, we have an important role as a convener to help Oregonians fully examine issues."

But doing a good job doesn't mean the university has reached a final destination.

"As I see the future, I hope we can be more integrative, bring information from a greater variety of disciplines to bear on state issues," he says. "OSU's campus is the state of Oregon."