Friday ceremony putting NCCU back in the Ph.D.-creation business

Elena Arthur, Rasheena Edmondson and Helen Oladapo (from left) are set to become N.C. Central University’s first Ph.D. graduates in 53 years. They’re getting doctorates in integrated biosciences during commencement for graduate and professional students on Friday.
Elena Arthur, Rasheena Edmondson and Helen Oladapo (from left) are set to become N.C. Central University’s first Ph.D. graduates in 53 years. They’re getting doctorates in integrated biosciences during commencement for graduate and professional students on Friday. N.C. Central University

It’s taken 53 years, but come Friday, N.C. Central University will be back in the business of minting new Ph.Ds.

The first graduates of the university’s integrated biosciences program, Rasheena Edmondson, Helen Oladapo and Elena Arthur, are scheduled to receive their doctorates during 3 p.m. commencement exercises for NCCU’s graduate and professional students in the McDougald-McClendon Arena.

However much it’s a personal milestone for the three women, it’s an institutional one for N.C. Central, given that before getting the UNC system’s OK to launch the biosciences program in 2012, it last awarded a doctorate in 1964.

Arthur, who did her undergraduate work at Durham Tech and N.C. State University, said the professors and administrators who got the biosciences program off the ground selected its first students with care, using a three-day interview to size up applicants and give them a chance to figure out if joining the start-up was for them.

“They were looking for students who would build a good, lasting program,” said Arthur, a future post-doc who worked with pharmaceutical sciences professor Jay Xie to figure out if it’d be possible to use plants as an intermediate stage in the development of genetically-engineered drugs.

The idea is to insert a gene into the plant, wait for the plant to convert it to a protein and then extract it, for possible future use in drugs that can help treat anemia or diabetes, she said.

Oladapo and Edmondson worked respectively with NCCU professors Kevin Williams and Liju Yang to find or evaluate cancer-treatment drugs.

The professors, students and the integrated biosciences program are all tied to BRITE, N.C. Central’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise.

For now, integrated biosciences will remain the university’s only Ph.D.-level degree program.

When they applied in 2011 for system Board of Governors permission to launch it, officials in former Chancellor Charlie Nelms’ administration said they wanted to facilitate research into the “cellular, molecular and genetic basis” of diseases that hit blacks and other minorities harder or more often than whites.

They also saw it as a way to address “the dearth of African-American scientists in biomedical research,” by training people for posts in academia or the private sector.

They expected the program to have 20 full-time students after five years. As 2016-17, it had 14.

Edmondson, Oladapo and Arthur are in line to become only the sixth, seventh and eighth people to receive doctorates from N.C. Central. The first five got Ph.Ds. in education from a program the university operated in the 1950s and early 1960s.

According to NCCU history professor Jerry Gershenhorn, who authored an article about it in The North Carolina Historical Review, the education doctorate was essentially a segregation-era dodge forced on Central by state higher-ed leaders who were looking for a way around federal court decisions that had begun to integrate university graduate schools.

By offering a doctorate at what was then called N.C. College, they hoped to avoid having to admit blacks to Ph.D. programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and other until-then whites-only institutions. Central’s trustee board at the time was also predominantly white, and went along despite objections from the university’s then-president, Alfonso Elder.

Eventually, the education program awarded doctorates to Walter M. Brown, in 1955, Solomon N. Shannon in 1957, Beulah B. Carr in 1959, Minnie T. Forte in 1960 and Lloyd R. Howell in 1964. After that, state higher-ed officials pulled the plug, for a time making doctoral-level offerings the exclusive domain of UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and UNC-Greensboro, historically white schools all.

Brown became a professor of education at Central in 1960 and served as dean of its School of Education from 1989 to 1992.

Forte, a teacher, was the mother of current Durham school board member Minnie Forte-Brown, who on Tuesday called her “a realist” who valued the chance the program offered, even knowing of its origins.

“She knew the times, but what she wanted was the educational opportunity,” Forte-Brown said of her mother. “The learning was there. The professors [a mix of academics from Central, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University] were who they were; it was just in a different place. It didn’t keep her from attaining what she wanted to attain.”

Forte-Brown, herself a NCCU master’s-degree recipient and former staffer, said she believes there’s “going to be more to come” in the way of doctoral offerings at Central now that the integrated biosciences program has begun graduating students.

Friday’s ceremony is “a very, very important moment of pride,” she said. “I’ll go down to see the awarding of those degrees. And it’s a proud moment for my family.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg