Paul Gillan Risser – scientist, former University of New Mexico provost and vice president, and top administrator at several other universities, died last week. He was 74.
Risser, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UNM from 1986 to 1992, lived in Norman, Okla. Until his death on Thursday, he served as chair and chief operating officer of the University of Oklahoma Research Cabinet.
Despite the years gone by since his service in New Mexico, Risser remains well-regarded by many here. Richard Peck, UNM’s president for most of the 1990s, on Monday called him “an accomplished scientist and a very experienced administrator.”
When Peck arrived at UNM, he recalled, “it was very clear that (Risser would) be moving on and moving up. I was very pleased that he agreed to stay on and continue as provost during my early months. That really helped with my transitions because he knew where all the stepping-stones were; he knew the personnel and the people at the university. It was a great help to me in settling in to the job.
“I am sad to hear that he has passed away.”
Scott Collins, a UNM biology professor and botanist who was Risser’s Ph.D. student at the University of Oklahoma in the early 1980s, said he has many recollections of his former adviser: “He was brilliant, kind, generous, ambitious, humble and funny – he had a great sense of humor.”
Collins said Risser was “admired by everyone” and was a “remarkably accomplished individual.”
Former deputy provost and current chemistry professor Richard Holder worked closely with Risser for as long as Risser was at UNM. He described Risser as “just a wonderful person to work for – cheerful, dedicated, a man with a wonderful sense of humor.”
He also remembers his former boss as a great multi-tasker who worked long hours and served on several national boards.
Risser was born on Sept. 14, 1939, in Blackwell, Okla. After graduating from Blackwell High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Iowa’s Grinnell College in 1961. He was awarded a master’s degree in botany in 1965, and a Ph.D. in botany and soils in 1967 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Early in his career, from 1967 to 1981, Risser was a faculty member of the University of Oklahoma. He began as an assistant professor and eventually was promoted to full professor, and chairman of the university’s Department of Botany and Microbiology.
From 1981 to 1986, he served in several administrative positions at the University of Illinois, and then it was on to UNM. He left the Albuquerque campus to become president of Miami University in Ohio and, from there, he became president of Oregon State University. He left Oregon State to take over as chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, a network of 25 state colleges and universities.
Besides his work in academic administration, Risser was an internationally admired ecologist who wrote or edited six books, and published more than 100 chapters and scientific papers in academic journals.
He also was chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey, program director of ecosystem studies for the National Science Foundation and president of three professional organizations: the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Ecological Society of America and the Association of Southwestern Naturalists. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the time of his death, he was a board trustee of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and vice chair of the Board of Trustees of Grinnell College.
Risser is survived by his wife, Les; four sons, David and Mark of Dallas, Stephen of Fort Worth and Scott of Butte, Mont.; two stepdaughters, Amy of Walla Walla, Wash., and Sarah of Denver; two brothers, his twin, Jim, of Austin, Texas, and Ted of Grants Pass, Ore.; and 14 grandchildren.
A memorial service was held Monday in Norman.
“I admired him enormously,” UNM’s Collins said of his former mentor. “He was a great leader whose contributions are amazing.”