At Long Last, New NCCU Doctoral Program Approved

Updated Dec 19, 2011
North Carolina Central University Provost Debbie Thomas North Carolina Central University Provost Debbie Thomas

When the board of governors of the University of North Carolina System approved a new doctoral program for North Carolina Central University, or NCCU, this fall, it marked the first time in half a century the historically Black college had successfully navigated the arduous path required to win a green light for a doctoral program. Not that there haven’t been efforts in the past. Three attempts in the past decade barely got off the drawing board at the school before falling victim to internal disagreements over strategy and readiness. The most recent proposal, one that has evolved during the past 10 years, had to be a sure shot, school officials say.

“This was the absolute best time and best proposal,” says NCCU Provost Dr. Debbie Thomas, referring to the new Ph.D. program in which the school hopes to begin enrolling its first five cohorts next fall. “We have remained undaunted,” Thomas says, acknowledging past failed efforts to get a doctoral program at NCCU. “That experience made us make sure we were prepared.”

The “interdisciplinary doctorate” will have two tracks — biomedical sciences and pharmaceutical sciences. The course of study will range from life sciences, physical sciences, computation and information sciences, pharmaceutical sciences and mathematics, a school statement says.

Establishing a Ph.D. program at a university is not a short order for any institution, higher education experts say. When a state-controlled public school is involved, the myriad hurdles — ranging from funding to political considerations that help or restrain different schools at different times — can be higher and more challenging to clear, they say.

Given their past experiences, NCCU officials say they wanted to have an airtight case when they ran the track this time around.

“Leveraging our capacity in the sciences, our geographic location and strategic alliances with research institutions” were the keys to putting the program together, says Dr. Saundra DeLauder, the NCCU chemistry professor who marshaled the school’s efforts to win the governing board’s endorsement of the new program. “This was a no-brainer for us,” she says, echoing Thomas in noting the school’s last three administrations have made enhancing biosciences at NCCU a priority during the past 10 years.

During that time NCCU has expanded its physical plant capacity for science education by 150,000 square feet, all dedicated to research and classroom space for science and technology. The university has gradually grown the ranks of its faculty to the point that the new program will largely draw on the school’s existing Ph.D. teaching and research ranks to staff it. Both school officials also say student enrollment in the biosciences has reached the point that they are confident about the ability to sustain a Ph.D. candidate pipeline.

NCCU, based in Durham, N.C., also has formed alliances with other public and private research institutions in the Research Triangle Park area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) that have enhanced the school’s ability to strengthen its own academic research muscle. In making a case for approval, NCCU officials also stressed that the program would focus on health disparities between racial and income groups, an area of research they say gets far less attention than needed.

As envisioned, the four-year program will award NCCU scholarships for the first two years of study, with the final two years funded through research grants secured by faculty. The program will draw its 32 faculty members from the school’s College of Science and Technology and College of Behavioral and Social Science, both once part of NCCU’s old College of Arts and Sciences. All have terminal degrees. To qualify, faculty must have sources of outside research funding that can be used to support students in the later research years of the doctoral program.

“Integrated learning is something all schools are looking at to broaden a student’s learning,” says DeLauder, who earned her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 1992 from Howard University.

“This program also allows us to build concentrations as it matures,” she says.

Thomas says the excitement over winning approval for the new STEM-related Ph.D. should not alarm observers concerned about the school’s commitment to continuing its historical mission as a teaching and service institution. Those goals remain intact, she says adamantly.

“We don’t view the three as being distinct from one another,” says Thomas. “It (the new research oriented Ph.D. program) will not result in a lowering of emphasis on teaching programs,” she says. “We remain committed.”

Aside from its doctorate in law program dating to the early 1940s, the only doctoral program NCCU has offered was a Ph.D. in education, dating from 1955 to 1964. The Ph.D. in education awarded in 1955 to Walter M. Brown, was the first Ph.D. awarded by an HBCU, according to the school.