University of South Florida

Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher looks to retirement after 21 years at USF Health


The USF Health School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences was founded in 1998 and part of the founding faculty was Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher, PT, PhD, FAPTA, now director and professor of the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences. An instrumental part of the school’s achievements over the past 21 years, Dr. Swisher is stepping down from her position as director at the end of December and returning to her faculty appointment for Spring 2020 before fully retiring next summer.

Dr. Swisher is a 1986 physical therapy graduate of the University of Tennessee, Memphis. She received a MDiv. degree from Andover Newton Theological School and a doctoral degree in public administration from Tennessee State University. Her professional experience prior to joining USF Health faculty includes work in outpatient, hand therapy, subacute and inpatient settings. Coming to a tropical climate was not Dr. Swisher’s top choice, but after interviewing with USF Health, she knew the program had the potential to be something special and that it was the right fit.

“I came to USF because they were going to do something different,” Dr. Swisher said. “The president at that time, Betty Castor, brought a tremendous energy to this university and one of her initiatives was the School of Physical Therapy. Betty Caster knew full well how children with disabilities need additional physical therapy services and so she was a champion for this program.”

(left to right) Dr. Kevin Sneed, Dr. Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher, Betty Castor, Dr. Donna Petersen, and Dr. Charles Lockwood at the SPT&RS 20th Celebration and 2018 Alumni Weekend.


Working for an academic medical center was also important to Dr. Swisher because of the focus on research and evidence-based care, and the interprofessional environment. An early champion of interprofessional education, she worked with Donna Petersen, ScD, dean of the USF College of Public Health, to create a dual Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master of Public Health program.

“I learned at that time how incredibly devoted Dolly is to students and their success and her desire to make sure they have the richest educational experience they could have here,” Dr. Petersen said. “She was a great champion and wildly creative and it was just a pleasure to know she was here in our community.”

Dr. Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher shares in the excitement at a SPT&RS white coat ceremony.


By 2013, Dr. Swisher attained the rank of professor and also went on to serve as coordinator of professional education for the school and as assistant dean of interprofessional education at the Morsani College of Medicine. Dr. Swisher has won a variety of teaching awards, as well as multiple national awards for her work. Most recently, she was named a Catherine Worthingham Fellow by the American Physical Therapy Association in 2015, a national designation recognizing those providing outstanding contributions to the physical therapy profession.

Dr. Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher was named a Catherine Worthingham Fellow by the American Physical Therapy Association in 2015.


M. Jason Highsmith, PhD, DPT, CP, FAAOP, co-director for the Center of Neuromusculoskeletal Research, professor for USF Health School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, and National Program Director for Clinical Orthotist and Prosthetist Service for the Veterans Health Administration, graduated from the Master of Physical Therapy program in 2003. Thinking back to having Dr. Swisher as a professor, Dr. Highsmith says, “she had a very calming way with people and she always made students feel at ease during assessments.” Dr. Highsmith has served many roles at USF Health and one of the first was as a project manager on a very large orthotic and prosthetic grant. “I think I was given my shot at academia because of Dr. Swisher,” said Dr. Highsmith. “She’s the one who suggested me for that role to the school Director at that time and I’m forever indebted for that.”

Dr. Jason Highsmith (center), class of 2003, when he was a student in the Master of Physical Therapy program.


When William S. Quillen, DPT, PhD, resigned as director, Dr. Swisher became interim director in January 2017. In the announcement of her new position, Charles J. Lockwood, MD, MHCM, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine said, “Dr. Swisher is eminently qualified to assume the post of interim director, is a founding faculty member for the School, and has very sound ideas about how to keep the School moving forward. She will continue the upward path so clearly defined by Dr. Quillen in raising the profile and standing of the School and pushing to meet the state’s demand for an increasingly sophisticated health care workforce.”

“When I became interim director, I interviewed everybody on our faculty and staff because I wanted to find out where people thought we should go,” Dr. Swisher said. “I wanted to ensure that students, faculty, and staff thought that our organizational environment was a really great place to learn and a great place to work.”

Dr. Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher shares a laugh at the SPT&RS 2009 Cheeseburger in Paradise – an annual tradition which allows the students, faculty, and staff a time to relax and connect outside of the classroom.


During her year as interim director, Dr. Swisher helped realign the school’s leadership team to better balance teaching and clinical roles, and to improve clinical practice efficiencies. Recruitment of two new board-certified clinical faculty and the addition of the first physical therapist assistant helped reduce wait times for new patients seen at the USF Physical Therapy Center. Under Dr. Swisher’s leadership, the school began implementing innovative curriculum changes, including strengthening the application of basic science education to clinical practice. SPT&RS graduates in the Classes of 2016-2018 attained a 100 percent ultimate pass rate on the National Physical Therapy Examination for licensure.

Jeannie Stephenson, PT, PhD, NCS, assistant professor for the USF Health School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, has worked alongside Dr. Swisher for 17 years. She commends Dr. Swisher for her leadership as chair of the curriculum committee and helping to convert the Master of Physical Therapy program into the State of Florida’s first Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

“Dr. Swisher is a very strong advocate not only for the faculty and staff, but also for the students and she always has their best interests in mind when she leads,” Dr. Stephenson said. “She’s very approachable, empathetic and compassionate and people often look to her for advice and mentorship.”

The University of South Florida Women’s Health Collaborative, in partnership with USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy, honored former USF President Betty Castor with the 2019 Remark-a-Bull Award at the sixth annual Leading the Way Awards Luncheon. The SPT&RS team, including Dr. Jeannie Stephenson (fourth from left), pose together in celebration with Betty Castor.


The original plan was to search for a permanent director to takeover — Dr. Swisher never intended to be director because she feels the most fulfilled by teaching — but the perfect fit ended up being Dr. Swisher and she was permanently given the reins in January 2018. “This appointment is recognition of the outstanding academic leadership she has continued to provide and her colleagues’ confidence in her ability to foster a positive learning environment where collaborative education, research and clinical care can thrive,” Dr. Lockwood said.

Dr. Swisher has chaired the Ethics and Judicial Committee of the American Physical Therapy Association and has served as co-chair of the Task Force to Revise the Core Ethics Documents. She has also been a member of the editorial board and a manuscript reviewer for the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation.

Some of Dr. Swisher’s proudest moments at USF Health were the accreditation of the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences and celebrating the 20th anniversary with alumni, where an ethical and professional leadership award was renamed in her honor. Dr. Swisher also reflects on all of the graduations she has been a part of as proud moments for her because, “it’s a really rigorous process to become a physical therapist and to share that moment with students when they have finished the program and they’re going to become physical therapists and colleagues is really special,” Dr. Swisher said.



Dr. Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher received her perpetual plaque for the ethical and professional leadership award renamed in her honor during SPT&RS 20th Anniversary Celebrations.


Dr. Laura Lee “Dolly” Swisher poses with the class of 2019 DPT graduates.


Dr. Swisher’s hope for the future is that SPT&RS will be recognized as the top program in the state in education, research, and clinical care, with faculty who are productive in grantsmanship and research. When asked what she will be doing during her retirement, she said, “probably golf!” Dr. Swisher will be greatly missed from the USF Health family and we wish her well in this next chapter of her life.

The first ever Cheeseburger in Paradise – Alumni Edition was held during SPT&RS 20th Anniversary Celebration.


Video and story by Torie M. Doll, USF Health Communications & Marketing.

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