Energy, experience, teamwork, drive, nerve, and creativity helped Barbara and Roger Rossier
become successful entrepreneurs. What made them extraordinary was their vision of and passion for quality in education.
As schedules go, Barbara and Roger Rossier's looked busy and fulfilling in early 1980. Roger was working as a counselor at
Cypress College in southern California; Barbara was teaching at the university level, expanding her private practice as a psychologist, and working
in a public school as a psychologist. In addition, they were raising two children.
The average couple in such a situation would have warded off additional demands on their time and energy. But when the Rossiers were
presented with an unexpected opportunity to go into business, they did not hesitate. "I happened to be talking to the director of special
education for a school district in Orange County, California. He said, 'A local private special education school is for sale. Why don't you
buy it?'" recalls Barbara.
Although the idea came out of left field, Barbara took it seriously. She says, "I thought, 'Hmm, that sounds pretty
interesting.' Because I had supervised the nonpublic schools when I was working in the district, I knew that school, or thought I did. And it was
a pretty good buy."
Ultimately, in 1980 the Rossiers purchased the small school, which served forty children with significant academic, social, and
emotional delays. Over the years its enrollment grew to 200, and it became the focus of Rossier Educational Enterprises, Inc. By the time they sold
the school in 1998, it was one of the largest therapeutic schools of its kind in the country and was noted for its high academic standards and
top-flight vocational program.
This first step into entrepreneurship led to others. Over the years, the Rossiers also established a profitable real estate and
leasing business, became involved in educational publishing, and operated an educational travel agency. In addition, to infuse what Barbara calls
"balance" into their hectic lives, the Rossiers committed an impressive amount of time, energy, and financial resources to educational,
civic, and philanthropic causes.
Increasing Educational Options
The Rossiers' varied backgrounds in many ways prepared them to take risks and focus on innovative solutions to problems. Barbara
Rossier was born in Casper, Wyoming. Because her father was in the construction business, the family moved often. As a result, she attended thirteen
schools before she went to college, an experience that enhanced her natural ability to adapt quickly to new situations.
After working for four years in a law office with the intention of becoming an attorney, Barbara reconsidered her plans to maintain
flexibility in her life. She recalls, "I thought, 'Is the world going to be a better place for my having been an attorney or will I leave it
better if I'm an educator?' I obviously chose the latter." She proceeded to enroll at Brigham Young University to earn her
bachelor's degree, which she did in two and a half years. As she explains matter-of-factly, "I needed to get through it."
Next, she obtained her teaching credential and taught in a junior high school in California. In 1960, she earned a master's
degree in educational guidance from the University of Southern California (USC) while continuing to work as a teacher/counselor. In 1964, she became
a counselor at Westminister High School in Orange County, California. There one of her fellow counselors turned out to be a young man named Roger
"I liked her style," Roger says when recalling Barbara's directness, enthusiasm, and determination to make a
difference. A California native and former GI, he had majored in education and physical education at California State University at Long Beach and
then taught physical education and geography at various schools before earning his master's degree in educational guidance at USC. Ironically,
Roger and Barbara had attended USC's School of Education at the same time but did not meet each other there.
The Rossiers married, and the couple continued to work at the secondary and college level while accumulating additional degrees from
USC. In 1972, Roger earned his doctorate in higher education, having focused on vocational education. Barbara, who had earned a second master's
degree, received her doctorate in 1971. She also earned additional teaching, counseling, and administrative credentials and obtained licenses as an
educational and later a clinical psychologist. Teamwork has been a central part of Roger and Barbara's relationship — it enabled them to
work, obtain advanced college degrees, start a business, and raise two sons.
In the late 1970s, Barbara opened a part-time private practice specializing in psychodiagnostic evaluation of children and adults
with various developmental delays and disabilities. Soon two events would open the door to a future the Rossiers had not anticipated, but for which
they were uniquely suited.
The first pivotal event was a change in leadership at the public school where Barbara was working as a school psychologist, one that
left her feeling restricted professionally. Consequently, in August 1979, she resigned her position as school psychologist to expand her private
clinical practice, while maintaining an assistant professorship.
The second catalytic event occurred when the school district's special education director suggested that Barbara purchase the
nonpublic school that had just come on the market. Although neither Barbara nor Roger had any particular entrepreneurial aspirations, the idea
intrigued them. Barbara's parents had been in the construction business, so the risks and benefits of business had been a part of her early life.
Further, she had already demonstrated her organizational and fiscal savvy by setting up her successful private practice. Perhaps most importantly,
the prospect of developing an educational program at their own school was irresistible to the Rossiers, who were determined to make a positive
contribution to education.
"So we got it," Barbara says. "It was just that simple."
In order to maintain some consistency of income, they agreed that Roger would continue working as a counselor at Cypress College
until his retirement at age fifty-five. Fortunately, some creative financing on the seller's part enabled the Rossiers to payoff their debt
quickly. "The person who was selling the school had some economic needs and arranged interesting loans that turned out to be very beneficial to
us. So we were able to purchase the school for what I think was a good price and we were able to pay it off rather quickly," Barbara
Meeting Students' Complex Needs
Subsequently, Rossier School was licensed to provide educational, counseling, and vocational services to children from kindergarten
through twelfth grade whose needs could not be sufficiently met in neighborhood schools in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. However, the Rossiers
soon realized the school's location behind a church in the city of Orange, California, was not suitable. So they initiated a search for a better
one — a move that would involve the Rossiers in the real estate business.
"I immediately started looking for sites, and at that point school districts were closing schools due to declining
enrollment," says Barbara. "We selected the ones we wanted and asked the district to put them up for disposal in the order we preferred,
and the district granted our request. We were in the same site for eighteen years."
At this point, the Rossiers leased one property to their school. They also obtained three more sites that were being closed, leasing
these and other properties acquired over the years. "Our tenants have been small schools, churches, and organizations that deal with public
service. An infant center and preschool was opened in 1980 enrolling children between six months and six years of age. The infant program was one of
the original infant programs in Orange County and grew to be one of the largest. A summer school was also added to the Rossier School's program.
We don't do any retail or industrial leasing. The diversification worked well for us," says Barbara.
Meanwhile, the Rossiers focused most of their attention on the Rossier School. One issue they addressed almost immediately was a
problematic two-tiered funding system they had inherited from the previous owner.
Twenty of the school's students were paying privately at a discounted rate, while the other twenty were publicly funded. The
private pay rate was insufficient to cover the cost of services such as counseling, which the Rossiers considered essential and also put them in
competition with the public schools, something they found undesirable. Consequently, they accepted only pupils referred by school districts.
The Rossiers emphasized a cooperative relationship with the public school system. "The only way I would enroll a student would
be if a public school indicated that it did not have an appropriate school program and the child had an IEP (Individual Education Plan),"
Barbara explains. "We would not enroll a child who was referred by a parent or an advocacy group. That was one of the things that helped us
grow. The school districts had confidence in our integrity. Districts also valued the fact that one of our goals was to return the children to public
Although the Rossiers, astute financial decisions resulted in a more efficient business, running the Rossier School was nevertheless
very demanding since it was in session all but seven weeks a year. They quickly mastered how to manage the many policy and administrative details of
a growing business, and at the same time be leaders in the field of special education. The school had its own transportation system. All students in
Orange and Los Angeles Counties received home-to-school transportation on a Rossier School Bus. Eventually they were running twenty bus routes within
a radius of fifty miles. As licensed bus drivers, both Barbara and Roger took stints driving in the beginning, and Roger was certified to train the
other school bus drivers. The Rossiers also supervised the school's food service, which met federal, state, and school district nutritional
Even though operating the school presented many challenges, the Rossiers never regretted their decision to purchase it. "I know
I'm a more well-rounded person. I think I'm healthier mentally and physically. I often say I don't think I'd be alive if I'd
stayed in public schools, because it was so constricting," Barbara remarks.
Among other positive results, the school gave the Rossiers an opportunity to test and prove their own educational, management, and
leadership theories, "Our school ran on participatory management. My job was to facilitate others doing the best they could do. If that meant
personally going to get something a teacher needed, I would do it," Barbara reminisces.
The establishment and implementation of a comprehensive program for the students perhaps best reflected their managerial and
leadership skills. Barbara explains, "Our niche was working with youngsters who had learning disabilities and who also, in some combination,
might have had delays in social and emotional development. They can be very, very challenging. We worked to return children to public schools when
they were ready and have them be successful. We were able to establish creative programs based on the philosophy and approach we used."
The Rossiers' approach stressed a combination of academic, behavioral, and counseling therapy. Academic therapy involved
following the regular public school curriculum, setting high academic standards that were individually designed for each student, and providing a
comprehensive vocational education program. Counseling sessions and behavioral therapy were integrated into the students' daily program by a
staff of onsite therapists. Parents received daily reports about their children's successes and difficulties, with bus drivers contributing to
Success through Clarity of Vision
As the school's reputation grew, so did its student body. Eventually it was serving 200 students. Despite its obvious success,
the ebbs and flows of the special education system presented unique challenges in terms of staffing and cash flow. Barbara notes, "The growth
was consistently upward, although there would be a year or two of slower growth that often followed changes in the funding model. Then after we had a
slow period, it would always catch up, and we would be inundated. Enrollment would end up high in the spring and drop down in the fall, because we
had graduated children and returned them to the public schools. There was definitely a pattern to it."
To meet their students' complex needs, the Rossiers maintained a staff of 115 to 125 employees. A credentialed special education
teacher supervised instruction in each classroom, aided by two assistants. "We would not employ anyone without at least a BA degree to work as
an assistant, whereas many similar schools utilized college students or bus drivers to work in the middle of the day," Barbara says, noting that
most new employees had some training in human service.
The hiring policy helped attract qualified personnel, as well as encourage employees to further their own education. Barbara
explains, "A significant number of assistants returned to college and obtained their special education credential while working with us. Some of
them became our best teachers, because they knew the population."
In addition to hiring and motivating an excellent staff, Barbara identifies several keys to business success: "Have a very clear
vision of what you want to do. Be service oriented. Think creatively and do everything at a very high quality. Maintain good public relations. And
strike a balance between caring and profit. You don't do anybody a favor if you don't watch the bottom line."
In 1998, the Rossiers sold their school to Aspen Youth Services, although Barbara remains involved with the school as a consultant.
They also continue to manage Rossier Enterprises, Inc.'s real estate activities.
Scaling down their commitments gave the Rossiers more time to indulge their love of travel, and they are now members of the select
Century Club for travelers who have visited over 100 different countries. They raise orchids and are accomplished ballroom dancers.
In addition, their commitment to the University of Southern California has not wavered. A partial list of Barbara's volunteer
positions includes being a member of the USC Board of Trustees. She is also chair of the Board of Councilors for the University of Southern
California School of Education, cochair of USC's California's Orange County Advisory Council, and past member of the USC Associates Board of
Directors and the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors. Roger has been active in USC's Scion Scholarship Committee, supported the School of
Education's recruitment efforts, and served as a mentor to graduates going into counseling. He is a member of the Athletic Board of
The Rossiers believe in philanthropy. They established an endowed scholarship fund at USC in 1991 in the School of Education to
assist master degree students training to become school counselors or school psychologists, and they launched a matching grant challenge program in
1996. In 1998, they made a $20 million gift to USC, which resulted in naming its school of education the Barbara J. and Roger W. Rossier School of
Education. Their $20 million gift was the largest ever made to a school of education in an American college or university.
The Rossiers' style, whether they are volunteering or operating a business, has remained consistent: they become totally involved
and demonstrate great generosity. Barbara responds, "We feel fortunate to have the financial resources to support various philanthropies, with
our main focus being on USC." And just as they did in business, the Rossiers continue to assist USC in less prestigious projects. Barbara
explains, "We're there to relieve the full-time staff and faculty. It's like doing the dishes and letting someone else do the
A TRIBUTE TO DR. LEONARD L. MURDY
1922 - 2012
by Donald E. Leisey, Ed.D. '73
When I learned about the passing of Dr. Leonard Murdy, numerous fond memories of taking classes
from him at USC ran through my mind. It is an honor for me to share my thoughts with you about
this great professor.
Dr. Murdy received all three of his degrees from USC (BS'48, MS'50, EdD'62) and
upon his retirement from the Rossier School at the University of Southern California, he was
awarded the title of Emeritus Professor. He was an outstanding school administrator for 25 years
including serving as superintendent of El Segundo Unified School District and the Fullerton Joint
Union High School District. More than 200 school districts took advantage of his vast knowledge
and experience in the area of Board-Superintendent relationships by hiring Dr. Murdy as a
I feel extremely fortunate to have had Dr. Leonard Murdy as one of my professors at USC. Not
only was he an outstanding professor, he was a superb educator, outstanding communicator, a true
gentleman, and a wonderful human being. He was always well prepared for the classes he was
teaching, his lectures were interesting and had meaning, he invited discussions and challenges,
shared his professional experiences, took a special interest in all of his students, and his door
was always open to meet with students. Dr. Murdy, an accomplished administrator and
superintendent, was a wonderful role model for his students aspiring to be school
After I received my doctorate, Dr. Murdy, like other professors at USC, never forgot about me.
As an example, when I was Superintendent of the San Rafael City Schools I was searching for a
principal replacement for one of my high schools and contacted Dr. Murdy to see if he knew of any
successful principals who might be wiling to move to Marin County and accept the challenges of a
high school in transition. Within a few days, Dr. Murdy called me and suggested I meet with one of
his doctoral students, Dr. Steve Collins, who had just received his Ed.D. Dr. Collins was an
experienced high school principal with the Department of Defense Overseas Dependent Schools and
was searching for a position so he and his family could return to the USA. Dr. Collins turned out
to be an outstanding high school principal, turning the school around in a short amount of time.
Some years later, Dr. Collins moved on to assistant superintendent and superintendent positions in
school districts in northern California.
In preparing these remarks, I asked Dr. Collins to give me his thoughts about Dr. Murdy. To
quote Dr. Collins: "What an elegant man! Dr. Murdy was not only a wonderful teacher, a caring
person, and a great mentor, he was a man of many talents. There are few people in one's life
that make a great difference, and Leonard Murdy was clearly one of those for me."
Dr. Murdy is in a special category of professors that I had at USC, including Dr. Dan Dawson,
Dr. Lloyd Nelson, Dr. John Stallings and Dr. Bill Georgiades, who had a profound impact on my
career, and provided me with the tools to compete for top administrative positions. Those
professors gave me the administrative and leadership skills that enhanced my career as an educator
and educational entrepreneur. I always felt they wanted me to succeed, and I will be eternally
grateful for their guidance, inspiration, and scholarly influence.