BY ROBERTA CODEMO
Dr. Susan J. Koch always looked up to her mother, who worked full-time while raising five children in a rural South Dakota town.
“She was a very courageous and dedicated person,” Koch said. “She had high expectations for us. I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
Whenever she left the house, Koch’s mother always told her, “I expect you to conduct yourself like a lady.”
“I had a reputation to live up to,” Koch recalls.
In 2011, Koch was named chancellor of the University of Illinois Springfield, where her leadership has led to the institution’s steady growth and strengthening.
Koch and her brothers and sisters never questioned that they were supposed to do something with their lives. Her parents were well-educated professionals and came from large metropolitan areas. From an early age, they were exposed to opportunities outside their peer group. She recalls spending summers in Chicago and Denver, her parents’ hometowns.
“It was clear to us the world was a big place,” Koch said. “We were encouraged to explore.”
A product of the Catholic school system in the 1950s, she credits the Presentation Sisters with instilling a love of learning in her. Every Saturday would find her at the local Carnegie Library.
“I learned to read at an early age,” she said.
While she had a wonderful childhood, she also recalls the constraints that were placed on women in that era.
“It was a very gendered society,” she said.
As a result, she feels she missed out on some opportunities reserved at that time only for boys. For example, after she married, her spouse asked her if she wanted to go pheasant hunting, a popular recreation in the Dakotas. She had never been hunting because it was something girls didn’t do. She went and found she enjoyed it.
She graduated from Dakota State University in South Dakota with honors with a bachelor’s degree in education and started her career as a high school teacher. She later earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in community health and education from the University of Northern Iowa.
Koch took on her current role at a time when both the Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses for University of Illinois were led by women.
“It was an amazing experience being chancellors together,” she said.
Under Koch’s leadership, enrollment at UIS has grown, diversity on campus has increased and the university is building its first student union. Koch, who retains a tenured faculty position in the College of Education and Human Services, has also lead an effort to beautify the UIS campus, including the Shakespeare Garden, complete with a sculpture of the Bard himself.
Koch and her family have put down roots here, and it’s important to her to be part of the community in which she lives. Among the organizations she belongs to are the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s Q5 Strategic Leadership Council, United Way of Central Illinois and Memorial Health System’s board of directors.
In addition, Koch writes a regular column in the State Journal-Register. She is also very active on campus, saying, “I enjoy being part of a diverse intellectual community.”
Nobody succeeds alone. A dedicated member of the Evelyn Brandt Thomas fan club, Koch credits the women she has met throughout her career with providing support, advice and mentoring along the way. Likewise, Koch’s family is also very important to her.
“I have a wonderful spouse and partner in life,” Koch said, adding that she has raised her children to be empathetic and kind, to aim high and to bring others along with them.
When Koch was asked to serve as chancellor at UIS six years ago, it was a natural career trajectory from dean to associate provost to provost. From an early age, she knew she was headed towards a leadership position.
“I was raised with the idea that everybody had an obligation to be all they could be,” she said.
Photo By Terry Farmer