Some of the certainties of life in Western New York include pizza and wings being served at a benefit, tens of thousands of people tailgating at a home Bills game and Sister Denise A. Roche leading D’Youville College as president.
Roche has been head of the West Side institution for so long, she has become an institution in her own right.
“She’s inseparable from D’Youville,” remarked Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure University. “And she’s absolutely the first lady of Catholic higher education in Western New York.”
Now, nearly 36 years after she began her tenure, Roche, 72, is planning to let go of the reins. She announced at the end of the most recent meeting of the college’s board of trustees that she will retire July 1, 2016.
“I never expected to be here past 70, and I’m well past 70,” she said Tuesday in an interview with The News. “You know, if not now, when? It’s time.”
Roche helped transform D’Youville from a small nursing school on shaky financial footing into an allied health professions powerhouse that regularly graduates many of the area’s physical and occupational therapists, physicians assistants and other health-related professionals and has invested more than $100 million over the past few decades in its campus on Porter Avenue near Niagara Street.
The Buffalo native was appointed in 1979 as the youngest president in the history of D’Youville, and a reluctant one at that.
A Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart, Roche had a doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts and was content teaching sociology at D’Youville when she was approached about becoming president by members of the board of trustees who were fellow women religious.
“A few of the sisters took me out to dinner and they said, ‘We’ll help you,’ ” Roche recalled. “I loved teaching. I love students, I love working with students. I wanted to go back into teaching. I didn’t know anything about being president.”
She specifically didn’t know anything about the economics of higher education.
“I spent the first year asking a lot of questions,” she said. “I’ve been blessed with wonderful trustees and a lot of what I’ve learned, I learned from them.”
Roche learned quickly that the college needed to add programs to attract more students. For years, it had relied heavily on filling seats with nursing students, and when the market for nursing degrees began to dry up, its finances began to suffer.
“That was frightening because we didn’t have another program to rely on,” said Roche.
Roche convinced trustees and faculty that programs in physical and occupational therapy were within the college’s mission, as established by founder Marguerite D’Youville. Then, she had to convince a bank to loan the college $500,000 so it could build laboratories for the new programs.
The new physical and occupational therapy programs were popular almost immediately, allowing the college to pay back the loan in 18 months.
D’Youville brought in other programs, as well, including doctoral-level programs and more than two dozen master’s degree programs.
Many of them were the result of Roche’s vision, but vision alone didn’t bring them to fruition, said William J. Mariani, the former Erie Community College president who now works as a vice president at D’Youville.
“If you don’t have the core element of the institution – the faculty – willing to embrace your ideas and work with you, you’re not going anywhere,” Mariani said. Roche shows concern for people on an individual level, and “that sends a message throughout the institution,” he said. “I’ve never seen her in a confrontational type of situation. I’ve always seen her look to the fair side of an issue, approaching things through communication.”
For all of her financial inexperience, Roche has become an expert in steering the college to economic stability. D’Youville now has an endowment of $38 million and an annual budget of about $60 million.
“We’ve been frugal. We’ve used money where we needed it – like the pharmacy school – and saved money where we could,” she said.
At a cost of $20 million, the pharmacy school, launched in 2010, was no small risk. But as with past moves, it now appears to be paying off. The college graduated its first class of 58 students in 2014, and currently has about 270 students.
“The choices I’ve watched her make over the past nine years, they were just the right ones,” said Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College in Hamburg. “She was very savvy in where they made investments in new programs. They really built on their strengths.”
During Roche’s tenure, enrollment nearly tripled in size, to its current 3,000 students, and the college built a new library, gymnasium, student apartments, and new sports complex. A new $20 million arts and sciences building is set to be completed this fall.
Another long-serving local college president, Sister Marcella Marie Garus, who has been leading Villa Maria College in Cheektowaga since 1978, said in a statement to The News on Tuesday that she will be announcing plans for her own retirement “in the near future.”
Roche is likely the last Grey Nun to serve as president of D’Youville. But she is confident the college will remain solidly Catholic well after she’s left the campus.
“Anything could happen, but our board has determined that the mission is important, fundamental really, and will do everything possible to keep it going,” she said.