Barbara Ricotta knows just what she wants to do when she retires at the end of June after a quarter century as dean of students.
“One of the first things I’m going to do is turn off my phone on July 1, because I’ve been on call for 25 years,” Ricotta says.
Ricotta retires from UB after 38 years, the last 25 as dean of students, managing the day-to-day operations of student life. Her fingerprints are all over the university, having spent nearly four decades at the forefront of campus life addressing student matters both big and small, from navigating a global pandemic to hemming uniforms for the marching band.
As she looks back, Ricotta says she could not have chosen a better profession. The venerable, cool-headed dean never knew what might come at her from one day to the next, and the crisis of the moment often ended with her saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.” But she loved it.
“It’s the students,” Ricotta explains.
“They are changing so much. They are developing, they are questioning — they are becoming adults,” she says. “It’s a really exciting time to be involved in their lives.”
Perched from her third-floor office in the Student Union, Ricotta is smack in the middle of the action on campus, which is right where she likes to be.
In her role, Ricotta oversees a wide range of student services: Orientation, Transition and Parent Programs; Student Engagement; Student Unions; Career Design Center; Accessibility Resources; Student Conduct; Veteran Services; and the Intercultural and Diversity Center.
She has watched how the generations of students have changed since she first began her career in the late 1970s. Their social skills have changed, social media has been a huge influence in their development and student activism is once again on the rise, she says.
Still, Ricotta has managed to keep pace over the decades, often relying on student leaders to help her gauge the pulse of the campus and better understand what’s working for students and what’s not.
“The easiest way to sum it up is Barb just gets it,” says Nicholas Singh, the past president of the undergraduate Student Association.
“Barb was always somebody we as students were able to turn to because she understands what a student needs,” Singh says. “She really knows how to be an ally to the students.”
Her career almost ended up much differently.
Born and raised in Dunkirk, Ricotta went to Fredonia State College, where she majored in elementary education. It wasn’t until Ricotta started student teaching that she realized how much she didn’t like it — not the children, but the daily routine of the school day.
Her mentor, Robert Coon, Fredonia’s vice president of student affairs at the time, suggested she join his staff. Ricotta had served as a resident adviser and worked summer orientations at Fredonia, so Coon convinced her to take a job as a graduate hall director while she commuted to Buffalo State College in the evenings to pursue her master’s degree part time.
She never looked back.
Ricotta spent a few years in California while her husband, Phil, earned his PhD in psychology, and she cut her professional teeth at Reedley College and California State University, Fresno.
In 1984, Ricotta landed a job at UB as assistant to the director of student information systems. She later became assistant director of student life, then rose to director of student life. In 1997, she was appointed interim dean of students and, by the following year, was permanently named dean of students and associate vice president.
At one point, her responsibilities grew to include campus police, campus living, food service, and conferences and events. More recently, those duties were scaled back to focus on the more traditional role of dean: supporting and shaping the student experience.
“I’m really there to say, ‘How do the decisions we’re making at UB on a day-to-day basis impact students? Does that really work for students? Is that the best thing for them?’” Ricotta says.
“I understand units and departments make decisions for a lot of reasons,” she says, “but I think my obligation is to ask those questions.”
Ricotta credits her staff. They work hard, keep her informed and understand that life outside the classroom is just as important as life inside the classroom, she says.
In turn, they credit Ricotta’s leadership.
“Barb has always brought people together to talk through things so decisions aren’t made in a vacuum,” says Phyllis Floro, director of student engagement. “And even though she’s in a higher position, you don’t feel that way when you’re with her. She looks at it just like she’s everyone else.”
Ricotta’s even-keeled demeanor provides a sense of comfort to those around her, especially during tense situations.
“She’s a person who is really grounded and takes things one day at a time,” says Elizabeth Lidano, director of student conduct and advocacy, who will take over for Ricotta as interim dean. “She’s not someone who panics. She’s a very steady leader in that sense and I so appreciated that about her.”
As dean, there is nothing harder than dealing with the death or debilitating injury of a student, Ricotta says. She is usually among the first from UB to reach out to the families during such tragedies, estimating as many as 120 of them during her tenure as dean.
“I don’t think there could be a better person representing the university during a student death,” says Dan Ryan, director of veteran services. “She’s just very empathetic and caring, and there in the moment.”
In a recent letter to staff, Brian Hamluk, vice president for student life, called Ricotta’s legacy of service to the students and campus community “extraordinary” and said her “contributions have positively impacted every facet of our division.” She will be greatly missed, he says.
As for retirement, Ricotta is eager to travel (a bike trip through Portugal and Spain is planned for the fall), anxious to spend more time visiting her daughter, Jill, in Washington D.C. (Ricotta’s favorite city) and ready to read something unrelated to higher education.
Ricotta may try some consulting, but that’s down the road. For now, she’s happy to turn off her phone and enjoy the month of July.