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Department reaches final phase of doctoral program approval

Ferenc Bunta, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD), analyzes his research on children with hearing loss. Doctoral students interested in this area of study can only work with Bunta through other departments, like psychology, because the COMD department is still awaiting approval for its doctoral program.  | Oscar Aguilar/The Cougar

Three and a half years after the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders made its initial doctoral program proposal, the UH system’s Board of Regents approved the petition in May, moving it to its final destination: the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“There’s a critical shortage of people with terminal degrees in speech and hearing sciences,” said Ferenc Bunta, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (COMD). “This will fill the need both in Texas as well as nationally.”

The department’s committee, which Bunta led, began the process in 2014 and received the Board of Regent’s approval in May, but the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board makes the final decision.

The department hopes to begin the program in Fall 2019 and enroll its first student in Fall 2020 if their proposal makes it past the board, Bunta said.

Before that happens, the department has to meet with a member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to work out details and get on their agenda, he said.

Provost Paula Short said the department’s graduate-program rank moved from 144 to 69 between 2007 and 2016.

No Houston-based university has a doctoral program in this field, and only three Texas universities offer it — UT Austin, UT Dallas and Texas Tech University, she said.

In May’s Board of Regents meeting, Short said the doctoral degree will add 54 credit hours to the department’s graduate program.

“It is very difficult to recruit Ph.D. faculty to teach these programs,” Short said. “UH will play a role to provide more students available to work in that area.”

Bunta said a doctoral program would help increase UH’s national recognition and the department’s ranking.

The program would attract more students, which would in turn fill the field’s growing demand for professionals when they graduate, he said.

Although undergraduate and master students help him on his research, they lack the time doctoral students have because of classes, he said. Approving the program would help faculty conduct their research by having students who fully focus on their work, he said.

When Bunta interviewed for a position in 2008, he asked if the University planned on implementing a doctoral program. Since that time, the University has lost about three prospective doctoral students every year — many of which made an argument in favor of a doctoral program in letters written to him, Bunta said.

Juliana Ronderos, a second-year student in the Psychology Department’s graduate program, said she wrote one of the letters asking for a doctoral program in COMD.

After receiving an MBA from New York University in 2010, Ronderos decided she needed a career change and enrolled in COMD’s post-baccalaureate program, Ronderos said.

But when she sought out a doctoral degree, she had to continue her education either through the Psychology Department or at another university, she said. Ronderos chose the former because of the challenge of relocating her family — a situation other UH students deal with, she said.

Students like Ronderos who want to work with COMD professors lose a valuable opportunity because of the lack of a doctoral program, she said.

She now works in a bilingual lab in the Psychology Department and as a research assistant in a COMD lab, she said.

“I think research in this area would have more credibility with a COMD degree,” Ronderos said.

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