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Betty Jane Diener, ODU's First Female Dean, Dies at 74

Betty Jane Diener, who became the first female dean in the history of Old Dominion University when appointed by Provost Charles O. Burgess in 1979, has died at a clinic in Weston, Fla. She was 74.

Diener was assistant dean and professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland when she was hired as ODU's dean of the College of Business in 1979. In 1982, then-Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb appointed Diener as Virginia's secretary of commerce, which led to her departure from the University.

Diener served as Virginia's secretary of commerce from 1982 to 1986, presiding over 22 state agencies, 52 boards and commissions, 4,000 employees and an annual budget of $945 million with responsibilities for labor, industry, agriculture, tourism and the environment.

Diener was born Sept. 15, 1940, in Washington and grew up in Arlington County. She graduated in 1958 from Washington-Lee High School and in 1962 from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. At Harvard Business School, she received a master's degree in business administration in 1964 and a doctorate in business administration in 1974.

In an interview with University Archivist James Sweeney, Burgess took immense pride in hiring Diener as the University's first female dean. He recalled her outspoken nature, remembering a time she sent a scathing letter to a university official who argued that ODU's Institute of Management was actually a non-credit program, and should be under his control.

"And she sent a letter to him and copied me and a number of other people saying, 'You get your hands off the Institute of Management or you're going to be singing soprano with the Virginia Opera,'" Burgess recalled with a laugh.

Burgess noted that Diener's tough-minded nature helped her perform her role as dean of the College of Business, at a time when business faculty at the University didn't make a habit of listening to anyone. "The business faculty really didn't want a dean," Burgess said. "But she was still dean after I retired. She stayed for several years."

Diener's tough-minded nature was also appreciated by Gov. Robb. In a 1984 profile of Diener in The Washington Post, Robb related a story about receiving correspondence from a committee of state legislators critical of Diener. The lawmakers said they didn't appreciate a "lady from Virginia" occasionally using foul language.

"I didn't hire her to be a lady. I hired her to be secretary of commerce," the governor told the legislators. (Robb, a Democrat, later served in the U.S. Senate.)

"When I first got in office I was 'embattled,'" Diener told The Post in 1984. "Then, about a year later, 'controversial.' Now there's a new one, 'outspoken,' so at least the level has come down."

After her service as Virginia's secretary of commerce, she was provost and a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. From 2002 to 2012, she was professor of management and analysis at the Andreas School of Business at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. She lived in Fort Lauderdale.

Her husband of 11 years, Robert D. Bell, died in 1993. She had no immediate survivors.

Funeral arrangements are forthcoming.

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