By Chuck Wasserstrom
There’s an old saying that you can’t go home again.
But what if you left for a long time – say, 15 years – and the place where you used to live totally transformed itself. Instead of being what many referred to it as an industrial cesspool, it had become a vital, thriving, vibrant metropolis.
Would you go home again?
For Dr. Robert Dooley, the answer was a resounding “Yes.”
Dooley, the dean of the Gary W. Rollins College of Business at UTC, knows first-hand about what Chattanooga was … what is has become … and where it’s going. Dooley, who recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of his return to UTC, heads a program of approximately 2,100 students which has become a model business school thanks in large part to the revitalization of Chattanooga.
“This city has really changed. Now, it’s really become a destination city,” Dooley said. “The students that are from this area go here – and want to stay here. The students that we recruit to come here want to stay here. I really think that’s a function of the university itself and how it’s progressed – but it’s also a part of the city story as well, and the opportunities that are available to students now.
“It’s a pretty miraculous story if you look at the evolution of the city and Chattanooga’s renaissance. And it has a second renaissance created around entrepreneurship – which is pretty fascinating. Look at the fiber optic network and the different types of accelerators and incubators and venture funds that have arisen here in Chattanooga over the past several years. It makes it a really dynamic business community as well. It made for the perfect opportunity from a professional point of view as dean.”
Born and raised in Athens, TN, a town of approximately 13,500 located one hour northeast of Chattanooga, Dooley first arrived at UTC as an undergraduate in 1979. He lived on a UTC campus that was less than half the size that it is now, and – surprisingly enough – was not a business major. Instead, he went the liberal arts route as a philosophy and religion major.
“During my entire time at UTC as an undergraduate, I never set foot in the business building,” he joked. “And I know this will come as a shock, but philosophy and religion majors weren’t in great demand.
“However, being a liberal arts major was very good preparation for ultimately being an academic, so writing skills, critical thinking skills, those types of things that I learned in philosophy and religion have served me well as an academic. It’s also given me a little bit of a different perspective than someone who went through a traditional business school education. There’s a lot of pressure on business schools today; there’s an implied ROI (return on investment). I’m very much committed to the idea of a well-rounded liberal education. What that means … I think business school students that come out with a well-rounded education are better prepared for the business world. It does bring a little bit of a different perspective to the business conversation. That piece of it has served me well.”
When he graduated from UTC in 1983, there weren’t a whole lot of reasons for Dooley to stay in Chattanooga. The city was depressed and going through economic hardships.
“It was one of the rustbelt Southern steel towns that had a lot of pollution problems,” he related. “Walter Cronkite’s famous news show where he said Chattanooga is the dirtiest city in the country pollution-wise – that was still the case. UTC was close to my home in Athens, but there was no compelling reason to stay in Chattanooga. So I moved back home and worked on a loading dock for about a year.”
A couple years later, while working for Westvaco – a pulp and paper company – Dooley said the business bug bit. It became pretty apparent to him early on that if he was going to survive in the business world, he needed to go back to school to acquire a business education. “I was in north Georgia, 30 miles down the road in Dalton, so I enrolled in UTC for a second time and went to night school for my MBA program.” He completed his MBA in 1991, focusing on finance.
During the MBA process, Dooley hit it off with Professor Steve White – who retired from UTC earlier this year. “Steve and I got to be pretty good friends. I took a class with him as an MBA student, and I wrote a paper for the class. Steve said, ‘I think this is pretty good. I think we can get this published.’ I had never really thought about a career in academia. And Professor Steve White is the reason I became an academic. The first paper that was published in The Journal of Business Ethics was a class paper I wrote for Steve. He encouraged me to pursue my academic career. So I left Westvaco and I went to Knoxville to work on my PhD and pursue a path in academics.
“My first job out of the PhD program in Knoxville was at Oklahoma State University – and I spent 15 years there. I probably would still be there if not for the opportunity to come back to Chattanooga.”
When the College of Business position at UTC became available in 2011 due to the retirement of Dean Richard Casavant, Dooley had to give a move back to Chattanooga a lot of thought. Oklahoma State had become his new home. He had advanced up the ranks of the OSU faculty. He was the MBA director. He had become associate dean for graduate programs and research. He was leading strategic planning initiatives. Dooley and his wife, Kim – a 1985 graduate of UTC – had settled nicely into Stillwater.
But the lure of Chattanooga was too good to resist. Dooley decided he could go home again.
“On a baseline level, it was my alma mater,” Dooley said. “I spent my formative years on campus, so I had that emotional attachment to the institution. The people that I met here and the faculty that I had were very influential. I met my wife here. It has that tie that a lot of people have back to their alma mater.
“But the thing that made UTC special and made this position really appealing to me is what had happened in the city of Chattanooga and what had been happening on this campus. If you look at it from a career point of view and from the opportunity, it has just been a phenomenal transformation. This city has transformed dramatically since I was first here in the 1980s. It’s become a hub of entrepreneurial activity. It’s become a progressive forward-thinking city. The campus has followed that trajectory. From a building point of view – and I like to build things and drive initiatives – it was just a wonderful opportunity. The emotional appeal – I’m not sure that in of itself – would have pulled me back to Chattanooga if I didn’t think the position itself and what was going on in the city and what was happening on campus also weren’t great opportunities. That’s what makes it a special place.”
As an alumnus, Dooley has a unique perspective on the role of alumni, calling them “critically important. They’re really the ones who are the lifeblood of the university,” he said.
“It might be trite to say that, but in some ways, the alums – and their connection back, whether it’s engaging the students or mentoring the students – it’s not all about fundraising. It’s about engagement. The more that we can get our alums engaged, the more opportunities we can provide our students – and the more value their degree will hold. It’s critical to have alumni engagement.
“We have a tremendous alumni network to draw on. But it’s not just the alumni that are supporting us; it’s the entire business community. We have a compelling story, and the community has been phenomenal in supporting us. I haven’t talked to anybody in the business community that I’ve asked to engage – whether as a mentor or to attend an event – that’s said ‘No.’
“Coming back here has been pretty amazing.”