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Leading Care: Dr. Dorrie Fontaine and the UVA School of Nursing

In this interview, Dorrie Fontaine ’72 BSN, PhD, RN, FAAN discusses her leadership in advancing nurses and health care through higher education. 

She is Dean Emerita University of Virginia (UVA) School of Nursing.

Dr. Dorrie Fontaine

How did you rise to this leadership position?

I have served in academic positions in nursing since 1978 including University of Maryland (15 years), Georgetown University (9 years), and the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF - 6 years) before coming to UVA as the dean. I was the academic dean at the latter two organizations.

Who influenced you? Dean Kathy Dracup at UCSF hired me in 2002 to be the academic dean. I knew her well from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) and I told her I hoped to be a dean one day. She mentored me in all facets of the role including development of faculty and philanthropy. I also had a superb clinical instructor in the ICU at Villanova my senior year who certainly helped me decide on a 47-year career as a critical care nurse!

Why is it important to you? Why are you enthusiastic about your work in this role? I was president of AACN and championed Healthy Work Environments (HWE) in critical care settings as our most important initiative. As I became a dean, I knew that the HWE initiative was imperative in academia as well and so worked with faculty and staff at UVA to focus on creating an environment where all could flourish: faculty, staff and students. UVA won the very first Healthy Work Environment award for an academic setting from Sigma in February 2019 validating our decade of work.

What are the issues you deal with and what’s the biggest challenge in your area? As a dean the key issue was recruiting faculty, especially a diverse faculty during a nursing and faculty shortage. A HWE was critical to this effort.

How are you effective in your role? What’s critical to your success in the role?

Keeping the focus on people and growing and developing leaders in the faculty, staff and students helped me be a successful dean. 

How does innovation fit into your role as leader?

I believe it was innovative to focus on creating the Compassionate Care Initiative which enabled me to be a successful fundraiser for the School to the tune of raising $55 million in 10 years.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently on your rise to this position or while in it?

Not really as I stayed optimistic always and was incredibly lucky to be at some of the nation’s premier organizations.

What’s your advice to someone who wants to be a leader in their area of interest?

I wrote a book on this topic with a colleague, Prof Ken White at UVA called “Boost your nursing leadership career.” I have been mentoring several new deans at top schools of nursing and am embracing that goal in retirement: helping others to be great leaders and not be afraid to be bold.

What is your leadership philosophy?

Put people first and prioritize relationships. Listen and speak up.

What’s your hope for our profession?

That we will continue to grow our ranks of thoughtful leaders who stand up for patients, families, and the work setting for all nurses.