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Dean Dunbar-Jacob: Transforming Pitt Nursing

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Health Promotion and Development and Associate Professor Betty Braxter (NURS ’03G) sat down with us to talk about the important role philanthropy plays in the life of a student.

This year marks Dean Dunbar-Jacob’s 20th at the helm of a school that U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally.

“She is consistent. She won’t say something to you today, and tomorrow she changes it to something else,” said Julius Kitutu, the school’s associate dean for student affairs and alumni relations and its chief diversity officer. She hired Kitutu as a student researcher in 2001. “She is always looking at the vision for the school. She has had a vision that has held true for 20 years.”

At that time, Pitt’s School of Nursing was regionally focused and had 60 first-year students. This year it has 185 first-year students, 46 percent of them from outside Pennsylvania. In the 20 years between, Dunbar-Jacob opened an honors college within the nursing program, added master’s programs, and moved the PhD program from part-time to full-time enrollment, which shortened the time to graduate. The passage rate for the school’s graduates on the NCLEX certification exam has risen more than 20 percentage points during her time as dean.

“In 2001, our undergraduate students went into bedside nursing, and our graduate students were primarily people who had maybe worked for 20 years and then decided to come back for a master’s degree. So, the age of our students was considerably older,” Dunbar-Jacob said. “We removed the barriers of needing to practice before you go on for graduate education, and we've seen a substantial drop in the average age of our graduate students.”

That pairs with the increase in scholarship dollars and in the diversity of students during her deanship. For example, in the past five years, enrollment of Hispanic students in the school has risen from 3.5 percent to 6.4 percent of students. University-wide, 16 percent of Pitt undergraduate students are from underrepresented populations; that number is 21 percent in the School of Nursing. 

“One of the things that's been interesting about being a dean is that there's always something to do, some new initiatives, some new passion to chart. It just makes it very hard to say: Okay, I've accomplished everything I intended to accomplish,” she said.

Dunbar-Jacob came to Pitt in 1984 as a well-known researcher. In 1987, Dunbar-Jacob became the first director of the School of Nursing’s Center for Research and Evaluation. 

The year before Dunbar-Jacob became dean, the school received $3.7 million in grant money from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2019, it received $9 million. Her own research into patient adherence to medical advice has increased the visibility of Pitt’s School of Nursing—she has had funding from seven of the NIH, and she has served as a behavioral scientist for three NIH-funded multicenter clinical trials and on 20 NIH working groups addressing research agendas.

Since 2008, nursing undergraduates—even in their first year—can be matched one-to-one with a research mentor. Every year about 125 nursing students in the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program and those in the Honors Program receive a $1,500 stipend to attend conferences or workshops once their submitted abstracts are accepted for presentation. They work with mentors to write research papers, attend conferences, and learn leadership skills. Dunbar-Jacob herself has mentored honors, master’s and PhD students.

During her time as dean, alumni of the School of Nursing have gone to become deans at the University of Illinois, the University of North Carolina, Colorado Technical University, and elsewhere. One became the CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

“Part of my charge to continue to build the research profile within the School of Nursing had to do with faculty hiring. There's never been an abundance of nursing faculty, and there's never been an abundance of those faculty who are actively engaged with research or are funded investigators on a par with other disciplines,” she said.

That’s her answer to what comes next in a world where nurses and other health care professionals continue to fight COVID-19 and where vaccination rates remain low: more research. 

“We need to continue to generate the science to support our best practices in nursing,” Dunbar-Jacob said. “I'm very happy and very grateful that over the 20 years I have been able to maintain a foot in each of my two disciplines, nursing and health psychology. I look at myself as an interdisciplinary person.”

Click on the link below if you’re interested in supporting the School of Nursing in its quest to provide a high-quality nursing education for our students now and for years to come—no matter what challenges they may face.

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Check out how the dean has positively impacted research and student mentorship at Pitt Nursing