The Koch Years
BY STEVE DANIEL
Old Dominion's sixth president steps down after a decade of remarkable achievement
 

e hit the ground running when he arrived 11 years ago, and in his wake is leaving a university that has undergone what can only be described as a remarkable transformation. When the torch is passed to Roseann Runte July 1, it will symbolize the end of a richly productive era in Old Dominion's history, characterized by momentous changes - technological, physical, reputational and academic - and the beginning of a new period positioned for continued success.

 
The legacy of James V. Koch can best be appreciated by those who were here before he arrived and also on hand to wish him well on his next venture which, a year from now, will find him back on campus as Board of Visitors Professor of Economics. One such person is Lindsay L. Rettie, former dean, and currently professor, in the College of Health Sciences.

"President Koch was a visionary who brought stability and direction to the university," Rettie said. "And he certainly elevated the image of Old Dominion in many ways. He also helped us to reach new populations through distance learning."

 

Perhaps more than anything, Koch will be remembered for orchestrating Old Dominion's evolution into a university of the 21st century. With his vision, acumen and persuasiveness, he helped transform an institution that was little more than two decades old as a university when he arrived, into a national model for distance education by the time he stepped down.

TELETECHNET, Old Dominion's crowning achievement, took advantage early on of the possibilities of satellite technology, leading to the designation of "largest interactive televised distance learning network in the country." In 1997, Forbes magazine named Old Dominion one of the "top 20 cyber schools" in the nation.

Today, Old Dominion broadcasts more than 200 courses annually to over 60 sites across Virginia, several other states and the Bahamas. In January 2000, the university began delivering fully streamed video courses of six degree programs, making it one of the first schools in the country to offer programs via this new technology. Students anywhere in the world can now take classes in real time, from their home or office, that originate on the Norfolk campus.

 

When asked to recount some of the most memorable events during his tenure, Koch immediately cited the day then-Gov. George Allen announced a multimillion-dollar commitment to the university to support technological development and TELETECHNET. "This provided us with a highly distinctive boost," he said.

Old Dominion's TELETECHNET program is housed, incidentally, in the Gornto Center, which opened in 1999 and symbolizes another highlight of President's Koch tenure, a successful capital campaign - the first in the university's history - that has raised more than $60 million to date.

Koch also will be remembered for numerous other accomplishments. Among them are having three programs - oceanography, physics and physical therapy - ranked in the top 25 in the country; instituting higher admissions standards; developing higher promotion and tenure standards; adding the University Professor designation to recognize and reward outstanding teaching; and introducing the Career Advantage Program.

 

In addition, the president is credited with elevating the university's stature in the eyes of the General Assembly, truly turning Old Dominion into a "player" on what had long been an uneven competitive field, with the likes of such historical institutions as William and Mary, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. He helped reverse what had been a pattern of inadequate state funding, a feat made even more amazing considering that the commonwealth removed 25 percent of the university's General Fund budget within two years after he arrived.

There were no legislative doors that the president knocked on and no thresholds crossed in Richmond where he was not well received. His tireless efforts in the state capital led to increased awareness of both Old Dominion's underfunded past and its unlimited potential.

At a recent campus tribute to the Kochs, state Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach jokingly made reference to the president's "tremendous attendance record" at the General Assembly. Wagner, who presented Koch with a resolution from the state legislature, added, "He has done so much to bring the university forward as one of the preeminent institutions of higher learning in the commonwealth of Virginia."

 
 

Deborah DiCroce, an Old Dominion alumna with both bachelor's and master's degrees and the president of Tidewater Community College since 1999, also spoke at the program, praising President Koch and his wife, Donna, who worked as her special assistant at TCC the past two years.

"Their work, individually and collectively, has increased the value of my two ODU degrees, and from where I stand as a university alumna and as a colleague, it's this bottom-line accomplishment that constitutes the ultimate worth of any college presidency," DiCroce said.

During his tenure, Koch led the efforts to spread the good word about Old Dominion throughout Virginia with his annual bus tours, during which faculty taught classes at high schools and met with prospective students and their parents. Koch, himself, made the most of his time on these trips, delivering his popular "Life After High School" talks to juniors and seniors and extolling the university's virtues to anyone who would listen, from the Lions and Kiwanis clubs to the local and national media.

Throughout his presidency, Koch devoted himself to the task of making a good school better. He first had some internal problems to attend to, however. When he arrived on campus in 1990, Old Dominion suffered not only from a lack of self-esteem, but also from image problems outside the campus walls. The university was seen as an institution less-than-welcoming to its minority neighbors, and to minorities in general.

In addition to working on the esteem issue ("We were better in reality than we were in our own self-estimation," he says), the president began the task of patching up relations with residents in the nearby Lambert's Point neighborhood. He also dedicated himself to increasing diversity on campus. His efforts paid off: both the number of African-American students and international students doubled during the 1990s.

Cecelia Tucker, whom Koch hired in 1991 as assistant to the president for community relations, credits him for a vision that has led to "a wonderfully diverse campus." Today, Old Dominion is recognized as the most diverse doctoral institution in Virginia, she proudly says.

One of the most visible changes on campus that occurred during Koch's presidency was in the physical plant itself. The campus grounds have undergone an amazing transformation, from the addition of the Monarch fountain in front of Webb Center to such showplaces as Monarch Gardens and Bugg Plaza.

When one looks at Old Dominion's many achievements these past 11 years, there was little that Koch didn't have his hand in. But he is the first to point out that virtually all of the changes are the result of a group effort.

"It's trite, but true, to observe that our greatest strength is our people," he said. "Ultimately, it is not buildings and budgets that make a difference, but people. We have some highly talented, energetic, entrepreneurial individuals at Old Dominion."

Those who worked closely with him over the years, however, note that the university would not be where it is today without Koch's leadership. They also point to his support in helping them perform better in their own jobs.

"I could always seek guidance from Jim Koch and regardless of the subject - admissions, public relations, governmental relations, personnel matters - I always walked out of his office feeling a little better, feeling a little smarter," said John R. Broderick, vice president for institutional advancement. "He is a brilliant strategist."

There are many improvements and changes at Old Dominion University for which James V. Koch will be remembered. Among those not previously mentioned are the President's Lecture Series and Diehn Concert Series; new buildings, including the Oceanography and Physics Building, and major additions to Perry Library and the Lions Child Study Center; the creation of a new Virginia Beach Higher Education Center and the recently established Northern Virginia Center; a focus on workforce training; and ambitious plans for the creation of the University Village, a 75-acre development that is on its way to becoming a reality with the construction of the Ted Constant Convocation Center on the east side of Hampton Boulevard.

 

After taking a year's sabbatical, during which he will teach at the universities of Hawaii and Montana, Koch will return to the economics department at Old Dominion. His role as a teacher and scholar will hardly be new territory, however; he taught at least one class a year during his presidency in addition to continuing his research and writing.

Koch said he looks forward to the transition.

"My experience in watching other former presidents is that those who really don't have anything else to do, or were 'professional presidents' rather than academics, find it difficult to withdraw and often end up kibitzing the new president from the sidelines.

 

"Don't expect that from me. I'll be seen, but never heard, both because it's the right thing to do and because I'll be quite busy. Former presidents Jim Bugg and Al Rollins provide excellent examples to emulate."

Fittingly, George Dragas Jr. '56, who led the search committee that selected Jim Koch as the university's sixth president, was on hand to help honor him at the April 27 campus tribute.

Koch "exceeded our greatest expectations," Dragas said simply.

"We knew we had a good one, but we did not realize at the time that we had really hit the jackpot."

 
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