Montana Tech is close to checking off a major item from its to-do list by establishing its first doctorate degree program.

Chancellor Donald Blackketter said in a recent interview with The Montana Standard that plans for the program are in the final stages of development, and it could be up and running as early as the 2013-14 academic year.

The program would be in material science and would be offered collaboratively between Tech, the University of Montana, and Montana State University with the three schools sharing courses, facilities, and faculty.

Blackketter said the program will be addressed formally at an upcoming Board of Regents meeting, most likely in March, when a level two-course proposal is submitted.

“It’s moderately historical if we can get it pulled off,” said Blackketter. “The concept is a collaborative Ph.D. program in material science. You could get your Ph.D. from Montana Tech, Montana State, and the University of Montana in materials science with specialty areas at each institution. For example, Montana Tech’s extracted metallurgy. That’s

where we have expertise, world-renown expertise.”

The collaborative program would allow the three institutions to share strengths: The University of Montana has a strong physics and chemistry department, Montana State’s strength is mechanical engineering, while Tech could contribute faculty from its metallurgy and materials engineering, general engineering, chemistry, and biological science departments. In all, the Ph.D. faculty would consist of an estimated 37 faculty members from all three universities.

When Blackketter arrived at Tech, the doctorate degree idea was only an information item for the Board of Regents. The process has included a series of steps, including a report in March of 2012 by a four-person expert panel that reviewed the faculty, the facilities, and the students at Tech for its readiness to have a Ph.D. program.

Another committee will address the final phase.

“We are in the process of 12-person committee working out the details of curriculum, what would be the common courses — the rules of collaboration, as you will, ” said Blackketter. “That (the committee) is currently happening and that probably dictates when it goes to the Board of Regents. I suppose it could go in January, but I think we are passed that deadline. It appears we are on track to have that proposal at the March Board of Regents meeting.”

Blackkettter said once it is approved by the regents, it will be a “done deal,” and that it will be a huge boon for the university. The regents could approve the program for the 2013-14 academic year or opt for a later start date.

“Certainly it is the goal of Montana Tech for some time to be a Ph.D. granting institution,” said Blackketter. “We certainly have some unique areas that no one else in the state has, in particular the materials science in extracted metallurgy. There are fairly few graduates, but a huge demand for them.”

The chancellor said the degree will have economic benefits for the university and the community. It might also attract new businesses.

“It opens up a number of grants that you can’t apply for unless you are a Ph.D. program,” he said. “It opens up some funding opportunities to have industry conversations about students and industry-supported research — those are some pretty good kudos for them.”

He said Tech’s faculty is prepared.

“Our faculty is already doing Ph.D. advising, serving on committees, and being major advisors for Ph.D. students, but they are doing it through University of Montana or Montana State as affiliate faculty, so we feel it’s much of work that we are already doing,” he said. “It’s just a matter or not of the diploma coming out of Montana Tech.”

There are obstacles, however, mainly related to funding.

“The challenges with the Ph.D. program are making sure you have enough resources, that the faculty have time to teach and advise students, and that you have the research funding to support students,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we have to be able share courses with at least these institutions in this area just because graduate programs are genuinely small and in Montana we’re limited by the size of faculty.”

Some courses will be offered via interactive video or streaming.

“You can take a class from Montana State and sit right here in Butte,” he said. “We have a lot of the technology ironed out. I think it’s much easier than it was just a few years ago.”

The program will start small with only 10 or 20 students among the three schools.

“That’s not a lot of students, but it’s OK,” he said. “Because we are going to share course work and equipment, and we’re going to help advise the students, which is really different and unique.”

— Reporter Francis Davis may be reached via email at francis.davis@lee.net

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