Dr. F Dominic Dottavio: The legacy of the 15th President


The JTAC Klaire Brock

Dr. Dottavio standing infront of one of the mini bonfires at the 2018 Homecoming bonfire. These mini bonfires were lit before the main bonfire was because of the weather the week of homecoming.

Nearing 11 years as President of Tarleton State University, Dr. F. Dominic Dottavio has proudly served the Tarleton Family with a presence full of spirit and a determination that never settled. Throughout his time, Dottavio has led the university in the growth and development that has allowed Tarleton to establish its presence as the premiere student-focused university in Texas and beyond. Since arriving at Tarleton, Dottavio and his wife, Dr. C. Lisette Dottavio, have grown to love Tarleton and the family it has sewn together. As the university approaches the completion of many key points of growth and prepares for its next advancement, Dottavio has come to the decision to step down and allow a new president to lead the university in its next chapter.

Dottavio began his tenure as president in 2008 with nearly 10,000 enrolled students and 1,200 employees at the university. Since even before his arrival from his presidency at Heidelberg University, Dottavio believed that Tarleton was on the cusps of becoming something greater.

“I certainly knew there was a great potential here at Tarleton,” said Dottavio. “I have known about it for a number of years before coming. It has always struck me as one of the royal jewels in the higher education system across the country and I was convinced. So I had every belief coming in here that this was a place that was going to be on the ground and that would do really remarkable things for the student body in the years ahead.

The JTAC Francisco Castro
Dr. F. Dominic and Dr. C. Lisette Dottavio enjoy the night at the Dining Hall celebrating Midnight Breakfast with Sister Dobby on Oct. 18 2018.

“One of the first things that we were facing was to provide what was then Tarleton Central Texas (the necessary resources to receive) independence as a university,” said Dottavio.
Dottavio explained that before his time, Tarleton had begun the procedure to allow what is now known as Texas A&M University – Central Texas to become an independent university as it was primarily a private college under the guise of Tarleton. By the time Dottavio arrived at Tarleton, the campus had a sufficient student population that could allow it to become an independent university.

“We began that process in earnest in 2009,” said Dottavio. “Over the next couple of years, we provided them with freer reign of operations and eventually they received their own accreditation by (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges).”

While Tarleton was able to successfully allow for Texas A&M – Central Texas to become an independent university, this split also resulted in Tarleton giving up a number of students and faculty, thus decreasing the overall numbers of the university population to 8,000 students and 1,000 faculty and staff. With this decrease in numbers, Dottavio and his colleagues began to work on increasing the university population.

“What we began with was talking a hard look at everything that we were doing as a university,” said Dottavio.

Dottavio continued to explain that the focus was on the programs that were available and what programs needed to be established as well as where the university was recruiting students from and where else in the state of Texas they could find potential students.

This work led to the notion that the university needed.

“To really focus intentionally on retaining students and making them successful,” said Dottavio.

With this newly discovered focus, it was not long until the university’s vision statement and set of core values was being drafted. It is this establishment of the ideals of what the university was striving to become that Dottavio sees as a key success for Tarleton.

“Some of the most important things that have happened over the years would have been defining what it is we wanted to be as a university,” said Dottavio. “What that vision statement would look like and that was the notion of being the premier student-focused university in Texas and beyond.”

“Having the faculty, the staff and the students embrace what those core values are. Alongside with being intentional in the focus on student success initiatives,” said Dottavio. “Those were really the key factors in defining who it is that we’ve become, (and) how it is that we’ve grown. Without (the vision statement, the core values and the intended focus) serving as the fundamental building blocks I think most anything else would not have been possible.”

Dr. Dottavio talking specifically to the class of 2021 preparing them for their home over the next four years.

Seeing how the vision statement and the core values have fit into the seams of the university has surprised Dottavio.

“I’m tremendously impressed with what our faculty, staff, our alumni, our friends of the university and our students have done to embrace our vision statement and to embrace our core values,” said Dottavio, “It seems to me that most every place you turn these days, somebody is either talking about that vision statement or talking about the core values. I’ve just been absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of emphasis that our faculty, staff and students have put on both those very important components (that) we’ve defined as the bedrock of this university.”

To Dottavio, Tarleton is closer to becoming the premier student-focused university in Texas and beyond. While he has led the university to this point as president, he finds it only fair to give credit and appreciation to the faculty and staff that have heavily contributed to this vision.

“I may have been a president,” said Dottavio, “but there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that were working daily to try to increase the retention rates of our students. Trying to identify what new program should be on the horizon.”

One example of the application of the core values Dottavio provided was Rudder Way.

“Rudder Way is not just about a walkway,” said Dottavio. “Rudder Way is about celebrating an important leader in our past, but also those core values going (about) Rudder Way. A daily reminder on the most heavily traveled path of the university is about what it is that we stand for and who it is that we want our students to be. I trust that most every student cannot help but see that presence of the core values every day that they walk across this campus.”

With so much effort and determination placed in leading the university towards its goals to become student-focused, Dottavio, as well as his wife, Lisette Dottavio, find joy in seeing students cross the stage on commencement.

“Every graduation ceremony is special to us,” said Dottavio. “Because you are seeing the fruits of what so many have worked so hard to accomplish, both the students and the faculty and the staff. It is a celebration of what we are about as a university.”

While commencement holds a place in the Dottavio’s heart, so does Homecoming Week and the Silver Taps ceremony.

The JTAC Luke Munchrath
Dr. Dottavio speaking about the core values at Silver Taps.

“Homecoming Week is an incredible reflection of the spirit and traditions of this university,’ said Dottavio. “It really does bring people together unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Silver Taps is one of the most meaningful, somber but enriching moments in the cycle of the university. Bringing together the brother and the sisters of this university, both past and future and reflecting on who they were and how they impacted the trajectory of the university.”

While Dottavio and his wife carry these everyday moments close to them, there is one particular moment in his time that has certainly impacted him.

“There are very special moments that have affected me powerfully and going to a hospital room to give diplomas to two of our students,” said Dottavio.

Reflecting on that day, Dottavio explained that Tarleton students Shelby Thebout and Colton Price were in a serious car accident days before they were to attend their commencement ceremonies.

“Presenting them with their diplomas in a hospital room while they were just coming out of surgery was a powerful moment and a memorable moment for the both of us,” said Dottavio.

According to Dottavio, what made the moment more powerful was not only seeing the two student’s joy in receiving their diploma and knowing they still had a future, but what would come to happen a few years later at commencement. Dottavio mentioned how after he got out of the hospital, many people though that Price would never be able to walk ever again.

“A number of years later, seeing Colton Price walk across the stage at graduation and receive his master’s degree,” said Dottavio. “Then for him to walk across that stage to receive his masters was a powerful moment.”

Throughout every moment of his time here at Tarleton, from the everyday hustle of leading the university to the extraordinary moments he has witnessed alongside the Tarleton Family, Dottavio truly feels that he has grown to love Tarleton.

“I hope everyone understands that I bleed purple as much as anyone,” said Dottavio. “I have embedded in me those words from the Tarleton creed, ‘Before I came to Tarleton, I only had a vague idea of what school spirit really meant. But I only been here a short while before I became a small part of the school and the school a large part of me.’. Those are powerful words from back in the twenties and for me, they are very much alive today in the twenty first century.

“I don’t know that either (Lisette or I) could have expected how deeply rooted the university has become in our lives,” said Dottavio. “I have said often, this is a place of remarkable spirit, remarkable pride, remarkable traditions and remarkable people. I don’t think anyone could understand how remarkable all those pieces are until you’re here for some period of time and have an opportunity to live with the traditions, live with the spirit and to see the effort the faculty, the staff and the student put into making this a better place. I don’t think I understood fully coming in but I’m extraordinarily glad that I had the opportunity to experience it for what it is.”

Having the opportunity to lead Tarleton to grow into the student-focused institution it can become and seeing the continuous growth that lies ahead, Dottavio feels that now is a good time to allow for a new leader to take the wheel.

“The time is right,” said Dottavio. “The time is right and I say that because we are finishing some important projects and program initiatives.”

According to Dottavio, these important projects include the new PhD program that has recently been approved by the accreditation association, the new engineering building that will house the devotedly-built engineering program and the new Fort Worth campus that has taken over six years to plan and execute.

“So we’re going to look into the completion of some important things. But at the same time, as I look into the future, a number of important initiatives that need to begin and are going to need years to complete,” said Dottavio.

The JTAC Emily Miller
Dr. Dottavio with Bailey Jones, Sister Catnip, during the Poo Reveal on March 29.

According to Dottavio, these new initiatives include the implementation of a new strategic plan and the beginning of a 10-year accreditation process for Tarleton.

“Those are long-term initiatives that I think deserve someone who would be involve in both the development of them and the implementation,” said Dottavio.

Knowing fully well that the application of these new initiatives will take many years after they are developed, as well as considering where he currently stands in his life, Dottavio feels that allowing new leadership to come up with fresh ideas for the future of the university is the best choice.

“As I reach the point of stepping down, I will be approaching 68 years of age,” said Dottavio. “So having somebody here that will be able to be here, hopefully, for the next 10 years, makes more sense to me than somebody that’s closer to retirement age.

“I think the university is well positioned, even as we’re finishing some things. There a couple of big projects out on the horizon that a new person should have input in and enjoy having the opportunity to participate,” said Dottavio. “A new master plan, a new aquatics center, we’re hopeful that we’re going to move forward with a new agriculture and environmental sciences building, a second building in Fort Worth. Those are all off on the horizon and I think, are very real and a new person can help and shape the pieces, allowing those new activities and really have an impact on the university for decades to come.”

While Dottavio plans to step down as president, he has no intention to retire but rather intends to return to Tarleton as a professor in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, teaching future Texans natural resource management.

“What is really the driving factor behind the university and has been over the last decade is being student focused and focusing on student success,” said Dottavio. “For me, sitting in the presidents chair and the intensity that goes with that, it would be very difficult for me to just stop, come August 31 and say, ‘I’m no longer going to do anything at all related to students.’ Students are the motivating factor for why I am in higher education and I believe that I still have something to give but in a different role.”

Utilizing his prior life experience as Regional Chief Scientist for the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, as well as his educational background in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, Dottavio plans to mentor students and contribute to their success within the field. Dottavio also hopes to teach the first-year seminar courses where he hopes to experience the pivotal points that determine student success and contribute towards that success.

It is this belief that Dottavio can continue to work with the university and help in its goal to be the premiere student-focused institution by applying his prior experience into educating future Texans that has inspired Dottavio to continue his career in higher education as a professor. Even during his time as president, he has been able to stay connected in the revolving events and occurrences within the field of natural resource management. This connection comes in the form of Dottavio’s role as an officer in the Park Institute of America where he is informed of the current conditions of National Parks and park services in the nation.

“I am certainly going to have to spend some time at the Center for Instructional Innovation, learning more about how technology is being incorporated in the classroom these days,” said Dottavio. “But from context standpoint, I feel very comfortable being able to talk about a wide variety of issues that I have first-hand experience in. (With) a combination of what I’ve done and what I have been doing over the last number of years and with the capable help of people in our Center of Instructional Innovation, I will be well prepared to walk into the classroom that first day.”

As Dottavio prepares his lesson plans for his first day in the classroom, he informs that Lisette Dottavio intends to remain in her current occupation of supporting students through mock interviews, etiquette dinners and participating in campus events as well as continue to serve as a Certified Public Accountant, travel on mission trips and be a grandmother for her grandchildren.

The JTAC Brittainie Cason
Dr. Dottavio and Dr. Lisette Dottavio at the the annual tree lighting in front of the Dick Smith Library.

“(Lisette) has been an incredible partner, not only at Tarleton but throughout our 39 years of marriage. I think the president’s position is made so much easier when you have a supportive, engaged wife and somebody that is as dynamic and willing to help with programs at the university either by hosting, by participating with students or by being engaged with the community,” said Dottavio. “She has been as positive, supportive and capable as anybody I could ever imagine (to have) as a spouse.”

With the days counting down until the 16th president of Tarleton is to take the reins, Dottavio asks that the new president, “Embrace the traditions and the culture of this university. To listen first and rely heavily on the advice and wisdom of the faculty and staff and the alumni. I think it’s important that they support the students and be visible with our students because at the end of the day, that’s why they are here. And even though there may be a new vision statement brought forward in the years to come, I think many people should still believe that this is a student-focused university. So spending time with students, being visible in their activities will be important for them (to see in their) new leader.”

With the days counting down until the 15th president of Tarleton is to pass the reins, Dottavio asks that the Tarleton family, “Welcome the new president with the same warmth and kindness that they afforded (Lisette and I). I would ask that they teach the new president some of the glorious tradition that this university has. Show them our great strengths. Demonstrate to the new president the core values of this university, what they really mean, how they’re embedded in the culture, in the individual lives of the students, faculty and staff. Allow for the new president to work beside them to move this university forward to even better days in the future. (And I would like to) remind everyone, as I remind our students when they’re coming in the door, and as I remind our students as they leave at commencement, the gates are always open. And so I hope that they open the gates widely for that new president and truly embrace the opportunity for new ideas, new challenges and new opportunities.”

“I have felt extraordinarily blessed to be the president of Tarleton for 11 years,” said Dottavio. “It has been deeply rewarding, enormously satisfying period of our lives. We have felt embraced by this university, we’ve felt the strength of this place. And we know that as we close the door on the Trogdon House, it will be a sad day for us but we think that at the same time, the university is well positioned for the future and at this moment in time, is the right time for a new leader to step in and we just hope and pray that the next period of time will be one of the best in its 130 year history. The gates are always open and I hope to be back soon and I certainly hope to interact with our faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the university for years to come.”