By Gina Stafford
Joe DiPietro believes in the power of higher education to change lives.
His own life, from its start as the son of a first-generation Italian-American to its present as newly installed president of the University of Tennessee, is an example of the transformative power of higher education—particularly through the mission of land-grant universities, where DiPietro has been either a student, a teacher, or an administrator.
That’s why, when the chance came to give back to a land-grant institution he came to love from the inside as chancellor of the UT Institute of Agriculture, he took it.
“I very thoughtfully considered the opportunity, and I thought I had the skill set to be successful as president. I’ve been at three major land-grants now. I’ve been a faculty member, an assistant dean, an associate dean, a dean, a vice-president, and a chancellor,” DiPietro said. “That experience prepared me, and I know what the unique land-grant mission is about. My work with the Institute of Agriculture enabled me to build relationships across the state, in every county in the state, to know people and have them know me.
“I’m tickled to death to have the opportunity to serve, especially because I have experienced firsthand and seen what can happen in somebody’s life with a college degree. It has an incalculable impact on the quality of the individual’s life and on their community, their children, and their grandchildren.”
A Family Tradition
DiPietro traces that impact on his life to the emigration of his grandparents from the Abruzzo region of Italy to the United States in the early 20th century. He describes both as “peasant farmers” who moved to the panhandle of West Virginia outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Grandfather DiPietro worked in steel mills and sold vegetables from “a truck farm.” Grandfather Ferrante operated a neighborhood grocery business and lived above the store.
“They were not highly educated, but they saw the value of education and encouraged all their children to do well in school and to go as far in pursuing an education as they could,” DiPietro said.
DiPietro’s mother, Luisa, graduated from Carnegie Tech, an institute of what is today known as Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His father, Alphonso, was valedictorian of his high school and earned a bachelor’s degree from West Liberty State College (near Wheeling, West Virginia) on a work-study program while also working two shifts at a steel mill every weekend.
“This was the heyday of higher education,” DiPietro said. “Government was pouring money into higher education, opportunities abounded for pursuing advanced degrees, and my father was encouraged to go on to graduate school.”
Alphonso DiPietro, a first-generation Italian-American and a first-generation college student, completed a Ph.D. in mathematics at Vanderbilt University. He took a teaching post at Eastern Illinois University, and the family settled in Charleston, Illinois.
“We had an incredible opportunity to pursue our education,” DiPietro says of himself, his two sisters, and his brother. “Eastern Illinois is very similar to UT Martin, situated in a rural community with lots of agricultural activity all around. There also was an excellent on-campus ‘laboratory school’ for kindergarten through ninth grade that provided a first-class education. Our parents were completely supportive of education, and we had access to this great school that had a lot of professorial-level people as teachers.”
And the education continued at home.
“At our house, it was not unusual to have after-dinner conversations about math equations. Birthday candles often appeared with numbers in bases other than ten. We had a chalkboard in our family room because my father really enjoyed teaching us how to work math problems,” DiPietro said.
“Dad didn’t care what we did, as long as we were happy—and we excelled.”
Today, one sister is a dentist, faculty member, and director of a research program funded by the National Institutes of Health. The other sister, who has a Ph.D. in food science, works for a food company developing new flavors and new types of ice cream. DiPietro’s brother has a master’s degree in computer engineering and works for a major software company.
Land-Grants Change Lives
At his parents’ urging, DiPietro and his siblings all attended the University of Illinois.
“They recognized what a big opportunity it would be for us to go to a land-grant, and I can’t describe how much it changed my life,” he said. “I went from a town of about nine thousand to this very large, diverse, culturally rich campus with so many academic disciplines and a recruiting program to get young people into agriculture.”
DiPietro enrolled as an animal sciences major (pre–veterinary medicine) and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1974. As an undergraduate, he said, he was “very fortunate to have a good mentor and good advising in a parasitology professor named Ken Todd.”
DiPietro entered vet school and went to work in Todd’s lab. By then he had met his wife of 36 years, Deb. Upon earning a DVM in 1976, DiPietro was “dying to try practice.”
Ken Todd “told me he thought I’d be back, but he said it would be good for me to try these new tools in my toolbox, and that if I did change my mind and think about returning to higher education, to call him first.
“Deb and I had dreams of going to Montana or someplace,” he said. “I thought I’d be a large-animal practitioner.”
His practice was in Peotone, Illinois, a farming community with 2,300 residents and a lot of dairy farmers and horse owners. The job was 90 hours a week and hard on his family. Cell phones weren’t around yet and he had no answering service.
Through the night and early morning hours, Deb answered the phone—often while her husband was gone to tend to a case—and she monitored a two-way radio. He checked in from the road via radio, and Deb relayed messages from farmers with animals that needed the doctor’s help.
In his practice, DiPietro discovered, “We spent a lot of time as vets trying to control parasites.” That discovery drove his research interest when he returned to the University of Illinois.
He began with the rank of instructor and soon had a “thriving research program with grad students, technicians, and postdocs. We put together models to say, ‘Does that treatment work against that parasite?’ and we put together an effective evaluation method.”
Stepping into Administration
After advancing through faculty ranks, an opportunity to fill a research deanship as a one-year temporary replacement came. When that year ended, DiPietro realized how much he’d enjoyed the administrative work.
“Fundamentally, I like building teams and helping people, and that’s what you do in administration.” Eventually, he was given a permanent appointment as associate dean for research at Illinois.
“We were very happy there, and then [the University of] Florida came calling,” DiPietro said. “I got a letter that I’d been nominated for the position of dean of the veterinary medicine school.”
When DiPietro was offered the job, moving was a difficult decision. The couple had called Urbana, Illinois, home for 19 years—longer than anywhere else in their lives.
After nine years in Florida, DiPietro was encouraged by former UT Knoxville chancellor Loren Crabtree to pursue the position of vice-president, as the job formerly was titled, of the UT Institute of Agriculture.
“My view on those positions is you don’t do them forever—nine to twelve years, usually,” DiPietro said of his Florida deanship. “When I heard about the opportunity at the Institute of Agriculture at Tennessee, I was very interested. I realized how important agriculture is in Tennessee, what a big beef industry and big farm industry there are—and a veterinarian had held the job before, Bill Armistead.”
DiPietro took the job, and the people of the Institute of Agriculture—and elsewhere—took to him.
“Joe has gained the respect and cooperation of his faculty, staff, and students at a time that required tough decisions because of State of Tennessee funding reductions, reflecting ability to lead, reach consensus, and build a team,” wrote President Emeritus Joe Johnson in a letter nominating DiPietro for president. “Joe DiPietro is not a loner, does not sit in an ivory tower, involves people, seeks advice, and makes decisions.”
Leaving the friendly confines of UT Agriculture and the warm embrace of those it serves was tough.
“It certainly was not an immediate decision,” DiPietro said. “I did a lot of soul-searching because I loved that job, but I believed I could serve the university well as president.”
As he has at every career juncture, DiPietro also discussed the possible move with his wife, Deb. “We talked about it at every step of the search process and she fully endorsed it.”
“When he first started talking about it, I couldn’t imagine why he would want such a big job, but I really felt from the beginning he would be an excellent candidate and the best person for the job,” Deb DiPietro said. “He’s just so good at managing people and getting people to work together that I knew he would do a really good job and the university would be really lucky to have him.
“And he has always supported me no matter what. When I wanted to stay home with the kids, he said, ‘Of course, that’s a really important job.’ When I wanted to go back to graduate school, he totally supported that—even though it meant he was the one running the kids around at night while I was in class. And when I wanted to work full time, he was supportive of that.
“I knew this would have a really big impact on our lives, but I have to support him because he has supported me in all the things I’ve wanted to do. Not to mention he’s a very talented administrator, and I wasn’t going to stand in the way of that.”
Deb DiPietro, who has a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s degree in forestry—both from the University of Illinois—has worked in the past as an environmental educator. Since moving to Knoxville in 2006, she has volunteered at Ross Learning Center as a tutor for adult GED students, served on the board of the Douglas Henry State Museum in Nashville, and has been involved with the Smoky Mountain Quilters group. She also keeps busy with the couple’s family, which includes two daughters, a son, and six grandchildren.
Hitting the Ground Running
By the time Joe DiPietro officially became UT’s 24th president on January 1, he had already made a whirlwind introductory tour of every UT campus, met with elected officials throughout the state, and visited with more than two-dozen donors.
His top priorities remain getting to know all of the campuses and institutes thoroughly, relationship-building with elected officials and policymakers, and “the critical area of fundraising.”
“But I’d say the biggest challenge we face is looking at the Complete College Act and making sure we get our strategic planning aligned with that because what’s in that legislation is good for Tennessee from the standpoint of greater numbers of Tennesseans obtaining college degrees and, hopefully, in shorter graduation times,” DiPietro said.
Building rapport with and within his executive team also is high on his list.
“I’m not a micromanager; I’m a team-builder,” he said. “I believe in empowering people and holding them accountable, in letting them do their work but also helping them as they might need. So my leadership approach will be a combination of communication and teamwork.
“And I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to [former interim president] Jan Simek and to the Board of Trustees,” he added. “They did a lot of work to give us a good structure. They’ve given me this opportunity to take it forward for the good of the entire university.”
And the opportunity couldn’t have come without the belief in the power of education that was instilled by his parents.
“The man who gave me a chance at Illinois with that one-year temporary research deanship didn’t tell me, but he told my father, ‘He’ll be a university president someday,’ and my father was always reminding me of that,” he said.
DiPietro’s father died in May, almost 20 years after the new president’s mother died.
“I told him last spring that I was thinking about this opportunity. He was happy about that,” DiPietro said. “And October twenty-third—the day everything was in the newspaper about my selection—that was my mother’s birthday. I made copies of the story and in notes I penned off to my aunts and uncles, I wrote, ‘Wow, Mom’s birthday. How about that?’
“I feel my parents’ spirits often. I know my father is really proud. He’s smiling big. My mother, too.”
Just the Facts: Joe DiPietro
- Headed UT’s Institute of Agriculture since 2006
- Dean, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine 1997–2006
- Education: University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine—B.S. 1974; DVM 1976; M.S. 1980
- Born Steubenville, Ohio, July 19, 1951
- Married the former Deborah Sue Brown, 1974
- Three children: Robin Rebecca, Joseph Alphonso, and Rose Elizabeth