Susan Koch will retire as chancellor of UIS and vice president of the University of Illinois System effective June 30, a role she has held since 2011. Koch is currently the longest-serving chancellor of the U of I System. Among other accomplishments, Koch spearheaded the initiative to build UIS’s first student union and fundraising efforts which led to the creation of “The Sangamon Experience,” a unique exhibition and research space, along with a new Center for Lincoln Studies. SBJ asked the chancellor about her rise to leadership, plans for retirement and lessons learned along the way.
You came of age during a time when women in education were expected to be teachers, not administrators. Do you think that is true for you?
Absolutely. First of all, I’d like to say that my parents were both highly educated people. They both had graduate degrees and there was never any doubt that all five of their children would become educated with at least a bachelor’s degree. That having been said, though, I clearly remember my high school guidance counselor saying to me, “You have two options: You can be a teacher or you can be a nurse.” I remember thinking that it was a really good thing that I wanted to be a teacher, because obviously he didn’t think I could do anything else!
You mention that your parents were both well-educated. What lessons did they instill in you about work ethic?
Growing up in South Dakota, my siblings and I had a lot of freedom, but we also had a lot of responsibility. We worked hard and contributed. My father was always working on side projects, and I remember when I was 12 years old, my siblings and I spent the summer helping him lay the concrete block foundation for our home. My mother was a high school physical education teacher and she was beloved by her students. She was dedicated to her work and took it very seriously. Her attitude about her profession had a major impact on how I’ve lived my life.
Did you ever envision you would become so successful in your career?
My parents made it clear that we were expected to be leaders. We always implicitly understood that we were supposed to have high goals, and because of that, I have always been in some kind of leadership position. I loved teaching, but because of my upbringing, accepting the chancellor position at UIS felt very natural to me.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy what people can achieve when they are focused on a shared goal. One thing you learn very quickly in a leadership role is that there isn’t a lot that you can do by yourself. You can certainly teach your class by yourself, do research by yourself and have a relationship with students by yourself, but if you’re going to get some of the bigger projects done, you have to collaborate with others.
What has been your greatest success during your time serving at UIS?
Obviously, my greatest successes are the relationships with students, faculty, staff and friends and donors of the university. I will forever treasure these relationships. Since my arrival at UIS, we have significantly increased enrollment by putting in place new academic programs that are attracting more students. I’m also really proud of the new Center for Lincoln Studies at UIS. I think it will really spur additional research and teaching about Lincoln.
What is your best career advice?
Participate fully in your job. In 35 years, I have never missed a commencement, because it is the culmination of everything I’ve been working on all year. Also, gratitude is very important and every day I make an effort to show my appreciation to the people who are making things happen at UIS. It continues to shock me how rarely people actually thank each other for what they do, so I really try hard to make up for that. I hope folks have noticed that, because I sincerely appreciate them.
Has the pandemic changed your retirement plans?
My plans are basically the same, with the appropriate adjustments to keep everyone safe. My husband and I plan to move to Iowa City, which is one of the best places to live if you want to be engaged with literature. Writing is very important to me, so I’m certain that will definitely be a part of my life there. We are looking forward to spending more quality time with our grandchildren, too, but I’m determined to leave a little space open to figure out some new directions. I will be really disgusted with myself if I have another full-time job by the middle of August. That is not my plan.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell myself to be a little less serious. I tend to immerse myself in whatever is important at the time, and looking back, I can think of some times when being a little less serious might not have been a bad idea.
What will you miss most about being the chancellor at UIS?
I’m going to miss all of it, but everyone gets to this point at some time during their life. It’s the natural way of things and I’m very comfortable with that.