Spokane Journal of Business

EWU considers adding two doctoral programs

Advanced degrees in biotech, computer science could help spur economic growth here

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Eastern Washington University is considering adding doctoral-level programs in biotechnology and computer science, two areas of industry that Spokane economic-development interests have identified as hot prospects for growth here, EWU President Stephen Jordan says.

Spokane and the region are trying to gear up for high technology, and they are looking to educational institutions for leadership, he says. I have heard a clear message on the importance of some doctoral-level education to support the industries we want here.

The universitys strengths in biotechnology and computer science mesh nicely with the regions economic-development goals, EWU officials say. The university offers the states only bachelors degree with a focus on biotechnology and has a strong computer-science program that is the primary training ground for software technicians and computing professionals on the east side of the state, school officials assert.

Jordan says EWU is examining how it can develop doctoral programs that are needed and build support for those programs in the local business community and among state officials.

He would like to take the proposal for a doctoral-level computer-science program before the states Higher Education Coordinating Board next year and have that program in place in three years. The biotechnology doctorate program is moving forward on a slower timetable, he says.

Were not going to change our mission and try to become a major research university, Jordan says. We can be a limited doctoral university that offers a few doctorates in limited areas to contribute to meeting the regions needs.

According to state law, the purpose of regional universities, including Eastern, is to offer undergraduate and masters degree programs directed to the educational and professional needs of the regions they serve. A change in state policy would be needed for EWU to offer doctorates, Jordan says.

Around the country, a growing number of colleges and universities that focus primarily on providing basic higher education are adding a limited number of doctoral programsusually fewer than a total of seven in all at each schoolthat build on the schools strengths and fill a niche in the communities they serve, he says.

Higher Education Coordinating Board spokeswoman Whitney DalBalcon says state officials have discussed allowing Washingtons regional universities to offer professional doctorates, such as in education, but legislation that would let them do so never has been advanced.

Computer science

EWU began preliminary consideration of a doctoral program in computer science last fall, when it started planning to create a cutting-edge center for technology training at Cheney Hall, the building that currently houses its Department of Technology, Jordan says. As the university prepared to design a facility that could house its technology, computer science, and physics departments, it looked at new programs that might be needed as those departments are combined, as planned, into a new School of Computer Science and Technology, he says.

Were exploring a range of possible future programs that could be made available depending on regional needs and interests, says Ray Hamel, chairman of EWUs computer science department. We are looking at how to accommodate masters level and doctoral work.

Hamel says the university likely wouldnt offer a standard computer-science doctorate, but would offer some doctoral-level subjects that focused on meeting specific community needs through applied work rather than theory. Government and industry would play key roles in shaping the subjects by voicing their needs for highly trained employees and research partnerships, and if those needs matched EWUs expertise, a program could be developed, he says.

Before starting a doctoral program, the university would have to identify a steady stream of incoming candidates that would feed the program, Hamel says. In the past year, EWU has awarded 57 bachelors degrees in computer-science and nine masters degrees, he says. A growing pool of people with advanced computer science degrees could spur the growth of companies that employ such people, creating a need for more workers with doctorates, thus establishing a cycle that would supply the steady stream of incoming students, he notes.


Jordan says plans are in the works to develop a doctorate in biotechnology in collaboration with one of the states major research universities also.

That program likely would be a joint degree that would be offered by teaming up with Washington State University or the University of Washington to allow doctoral candidates to do their research work through EWU, says Don Lightfoot, an associate professor of biology who oversees EWUs biotechnology program. EWU has research laboratories, and the Heart Institute of Spokane would make an excellent venue for doctoral training, he says.

He says the biology department studied the feasibility of adding a doctorate about 12 years ago, but decided that the department was too small.

He says that the biology and chemistry departments, which work together in the biotechnology arena, have enough active faculty members who get research grants and publish studies that they could support a doctoral program in biotechnology.

Lightfoot says there are several ways to evaluate the demand for a doctoral program, and they all seem to indicate some need exists here. He says EWU has a sizable and growing undergraduate biotechnology program with about 30 graduate students working toward masters degrees. A program typically can expect to have a few doctoral candidates for every 12 students who earn a masters degree at the university. Also, the Spokane area has a number of qualified people who are interested in getting a doctorate in biotechnology, but have jobs, homes, or families in Spokane that limit their ability to attend a research university elsewhere, he says. In another indicator of potential need, the region has a small, but rapidly expanding, pharmaceutical industry that increasingly will need people with doctorates in biotechnology.

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