Doc Rock

No moss here

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Rocki-Lee DeWitt

Rocki-Lee DeWitt joined the University of Vermont as dean of the School of Business Administration on Jan. 1, 2002. She chose the Vermont opportunity because “the one thing I learned after six moves in five years with International Harvester was they can’t pay you enough to live where you don’t want to live.”

Don’t screw up what’s good, and work on building relationships where you can.”

That’s Rocki-Lee DeWitt’s guiding principle as dean of the University of Vermont School of Business Administration. It’s a motto to live by in most endeavors; DeWitt applies it with passion.

Yes, Rocki-Lee is her given name, and she’s known as Rocki. It is a reflection of her mother’s nickname, Rocky, which was a sobriquet gained in high school. She named her daughter Rocki-Lee, thinking people might call her Lee. “She’s the only one who’s ever called me Lee,” DeWitt says, dryly.

DeWitt is a self-confessed “flatlander” who grew up on a dairy farm in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. She bristles a bit, though, at the term. “I sometimes take issue with people’s willingness to distance you from them by saying, ‘You’re not from here.’ I am as familiar with rural living and the struggles of the agrarian economy as anybody who grew up here. I think the world would be a much better place if we focused on what is similar rather than our differences.”

When it was time for college in the mid-1970s, DeWitt entered New York University’s business school to study management and marketing management — “aka retailing,” she says. From there, it was right into a master’s program in agricultural economics at The Ohio State University. Following graduation in 1980, she went to work with International Harvester in Columbus.

“Then they moved me to Lansing, Mich.; then they moved me to Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; then laid me off; then it was back to Ohio State on a research project for six months; then they rehired me, and I lived out of my family’s house in New York state and covered all of eastern New York and all of New England. That was my first introduction to Vermont other than traveling here when I was a kid.”

She did that for about eight months before she was sent to Reading, Pa., and eventually to Kansas City, where her job was to move the company from using a territory sales force — which she had been part of — to using a telemarketing force centralized out of Kansas City. 

“I had six moves in five years with them,” DeWitt says, “including being laid off and rehired.” Realizing that she was working for a business in a declining industry, where the next jobs are usually contingent on people retiring or dying off, she took a breather to consider her next career opportunity. 

“I stepped back and did an analysis of the things I like to do,” she says, “which was develop new models for business and help implement them.” She decided that a return to academia would be the best fit for her and offer the most control over the kinds of projects she wanted to work on. 

In 1985, she headed to Columbia University for her Ph.D. in business. It was there that she met Josephine Herrera, a returning adult student finishing up her undergraduate degree in geology, who became her life partner. DeWitt became an instant parent of two teenagers. 

“And now, I have a son who is 40, full-time U.S. Army, and lives in Virginia and works at the Pentagon, and a daughter who is 38 who works at Middlebury College — all without stretch marks — it doesn’t get much better than that!” she exclaims. 

They entered a civil union in 2005. “I’m Doc Rock and she’s a rock doc,” DeWitt quips. “We’re going on 23 years this October.”

Vermont Family Business Initiative staffDaniel G. Van Der Vliet is director of the Vermont Family Business Initiative, a statewide organization led by the School of Business Administration. Alison Maynard is director of the Vermont Business Center, and Tracey Maurer is VBC program coordinator.

At Columbia, DeWitt was most interested in the factors that contribute to the success and failure of a business, she says, “because I had spent five years in a business that was slowly, but surely, self-destructing.” She wanted to understand the extent to which such an outcome was the context in which a business operated — in which one might have had influence — versus the leadership’s making of decisions, and how those decisions were being implemented. She chose to blend economics and psychology and social psychology.

By 1989, Herrera had finished her degree and taught for a year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. DeWitt, although not finished with her degree program, found herself “ready to get back to being an adult again.”

“The market at that time was very favorable to faculty members capable of teaching strategic management,” she says. “Schools around the country were looking for people who had the capacity to teach and conduct research in that area.”

That gave her the opportunity to be interviewed, even with an uncompleted degree. Of several offers, she chose Penn State. They moved to the State College, Pa., area in 1989.

“I started there as an instructor, because that was motivation for me: Get the degree done and you’ll be in the system as a professor.” She completed her degree in 1991 after two years on the faculty.

In her 13 years at Penn, she rose from faculty member to faculty leader of the MBA program. “That started out being interim director,” she says, “then director, then assistant dean, then the associate dean.” She took on increasing responsibilities and had the opportunity to modify a variety of professional master’s programs in disciplines beyond the business school, such as health.

Now it was time to again take stock, says DeWitt. This time, quality of life entered the equation. She learned of the opening at UVM and decided to put her name in. “A piece that was so great about the opportunity of coming here,” she says, “was that the reputation of the university was stronger outside the state than it was inside the state; so when you look at what work needs to get done, you focus on building relationships with people within the state and not doing things that perturb those with whom you have relations outside of the state.”

She interviewed with then-president Judith Ramaley, who was soon asked to step down at the end of the academic year. When Ramaley stepped down immediately and Rebecca Martin was named interim president, DeWitt withdrew her name from consideration, even though she continued to be intrigued by the opportunity.

Business School staffFaculty and staff number, at most, 60 people. From left are Emilie Grenier, career and professional development coordinator; Beth Giard, student support specialist; Dean Snider, major gifts officer; Meghan Oliver, assistant to the dean; Rob Rohr, IT professional, senior; Cathy Carlson, director of student services; and Michael Caha, IT support assistant.

“Then Ed Colodny came in as interim president, and John Bramley was interim provost,” DeWitt says. “I called John because I knew they were going back out to search for the position again and said, ‘Might you be willing to reconsider my candidacy?’” She returned, met with Colodny, and was eventually hired. She started in January 2002.

Counting undergraduate majors, undergraduate minors, and graduate students, the college has responsibility for about 1,000 students, which has grown from 750 under her leadership. The profession of administration has changed, says DeWitt, as it has become one of increasing competition for talent as the availability of high-caliber faculty has decreased.

“We can’t pay as much as, say, the Boston or Philadelphia schools, but we have a grand combination. We’re a small school,” she says, “and we don’t have departments, so faculty get to interact with faculty from other fields and learn from them. We’ve focused on what we can do, and we’ve attracted folks.”

DeWitt has been able to grow the number of tenure track lines from 19 to 27 and has been able to hire 16 of the full-time tenure track faculty. “At the same time, we’ve grown student enrollments, and between new positions and individuals deciding to retire, it’s been a great time building a team of good individuals.”

Along with that competitiveness for talent is a second component involving program, she says. “Universities have realized that business degree programs are attractive to students and their parents, so the stakes have gone up in terms of what sorts of programmatic features you should have in place to be attractive to students and their parents.”

DeWitt’s day starts between 5 and 5:30 a.m. After making a pot of coffee, she logs on and checks various news outlets such as The Burlington Free Press, The New York Times, and Financial Times. After a quick look at e-mail, “to make sure nothing blew up overnight,” she will either shower and head out to a meeting or, more frequently, she says, “stay in front of the computer and work on a proposal and manage a sequence of communications before dressing and leaving for the office.”

Once in her office, her time is driven by her schedule, which her assistant, Meghan Oliver, oversees. “You don’t have blocks of uninterrupted time unless you make them for yourself,” says DeWitt. Appointments during the day might involve other people on campus or a meeting with students or faculty or attending meetings of the chamber of commerce or Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. She also teaches, so she could be heading to a day-long class.

DeWitt’s community activities include serving on the boards of the chamber and GBIC. “Rocki is just an incredible thinker and an absolutely phenomenal innovator,” says Frank Cioffi, president of GBIC. “She is one of the most keen critical thinkers we have had the good fortune to meet and talk with about Vermont issues and business and economics.

“She’s very proactive working with alumni of the school, too, and in the years she’s been there, has brought back former UVM students who have run and owned successful businesses to speak with students.”

DeWitt loves to be active. She might play with her granddaughter — she and Herrera have three grandchildren — or go for a bike ride or a run or play golf with Herrera or “putter around in the garden.” She’s an avid reader, often working on several books at once. She quickly lists several favorites: Michael Pollan, Jack DuBrul, Jeff Heal, Patricia Cornwall, and Louise Erdrich. 

On her life as a whole, she waxes philosophic. “For someone like me, it’s how do you recognize that you’re doing the best you can do, given the circumstances, and that’ll have to be good enough. I’m just not a person who’s comfortable with daring to be mediocre.

“I know I can wear people out,” she says after a pause. “I know I can wear myself out.”•