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Retiring dean was ahead of the curve

When Dr. Robert Supernaw first stepped foot on Wingate’s campus in 2001, he was, well, underwhelmed. The associate dean of the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, Supernaw was being courted to start a pharmacy school at Wingate. What he saw was a tiny liberal arts school with a slim undergraduate science department.

“I thought, No way,” he says. “I’m coming from a major medical center, a research place.”

Dr. Jerry McGee, a dozen years in as president of Wingate University, was his usual persuasive self. He drove Supernaw and his wife around the Charlotte area, showed them the best neighborhoods, and strategically introduced them to a real-estate agent, who revealed how much more affordable the area was than Texas and California, Supernaw’s previous two homes.

Then talk turned to the embryonic pharmacy school. McGee told Supernaw two things that really turned the tide. “He said he would raise all the money we would need for a new building,” Supernaw says. “Secondly, he said that I would have to understand that nobody here, including himself, knows anything about pharmacy. So I’d really be on my own.

“He was sort of apologizing for that, but that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Everyone dreams of being king for a day, and here was McGee giving Supernaw the opportunity to create his own realm from scratch and shape it the way he wanted to, like a kid playing Minecraft or Legos. Supernaw was suddenly licking his chops.

Supernaw accepted the job in 2002, and – much to his chagrin – the first cohort of students arrived a year later. Despite the tight timetable, Supernaw was able to implement his forward-thinking program on time. “Bob just rolled up his sleeves and got it done,” says Bill Durham, who was Wingate’s auditor while working for a private firm in the early 2000s and is now the University’s vice president of finance. “I’m not sure people understand what he got done in a year.”

Now, 17 years after he packed up and moved 1,400 miles away to turn his vision into reality, Supernaw is preparing to exit the program he birthed and parented into its teens. He had planned to retire from Wingate in December, but his plans changed when Helen Tate left as provost in August. Supernaw stepped up his pharmacy-retirement timetable in order to serve as interim provost.

When he does retire from the University for good, he'll leave behind a changed institution, one with booming enrollment (nearly 3,700 and counting), a firm focus on health sciences and a robust undergraduate science department.

“Jerry McGee says, and I don’t think he’s just trying to flatter our program, but the School of Pharmacy changed the direction of the University,” Supernaw says.

That’s what McGee was looking for when he hired Supernaw, but both knew it was a risky move.

Tireless worker

In 2002, Wingate had little need for a new undergraduate science building, as it does now (fundraising is currently underway for one). The University had only a couple of master’s-level programs, and undergraduate enrollment was just under 1,500. Although Wingate had experienced incremental growth since McGee’s inauguration in 1992, it was in need of a jump-start to take it to the next level. McGee explored the possibility of starting a law school, but the Charlotte Bar Association was adamant that there was no lack of attorneys in the area.

He instead turned to a field that at the time could have used an influx of professionals: pharmacy. A full-fledged Doctor of Pharmacy program would be costly and a big departure from Wingate’s roots as a small liberal-arts school. It was a gamble, but one McGee thought was worth taking. “This is a not a decision to be made lightly,” McGee told the Board of Trustees. “We can’t afford to be wrong.”

That meant hiring the right person to lead the program. Supernaw’s vision of producing “practice-ready” pharmacists impressed McGee, as did his Rolodex of potential faculty members.

So, not only was Wingate gambling on pharmacy to transform the school, but it was taking a revolutionary approach to teaching those budding pharmacists. Now Supernaw had to come in and implement that vision.

“I didn’t have a faculty, didn’t have accreditation, didn't have a curriculum, and certainly didn't have students,” Supernaw says. “I thought, This is about as tough a challenge as I’ve ever seen. If I feel I’m worth my salt, I better get going on it.”

Supernaw doesn’t mind hard work. To get away from the logistics and headaches associated with running a pharmacy school, Supernaw has a few avocations and hobbies: He reads a lot (enjoys the classics, though is puzzled by the popularity of James Joyce), he serves as a legal expert in court, he’s helped develop a few drugs (including Aleve), and he recanes chairs.The last of these is tedious, often difficult work, though satisfying. Supernaw doesn’t do the weaving, but setting the woven cane into place isn’t easy. “There’s something called spline, which is the reed that goes all the way around, and you pound that in and it holds it in, if you will,” Supernaw says. “Digging the old one out is really quite tough, because it’s glued in.”

"Bob just rolled up his sleeves and got it done. I’m not sure people understand what he got done in a year.”

With the patient determination with which he recanes a chair, Supernaw set about creating a school of pharmacy. He developed a curriculum, hired faculty members and recruited students – and all of this had to happen within 12 months. Recruitment went better than expected. McGee told him he’d be happy with 40 students in the first cohort, but the applications started piling up, and soon Wingate had surpassed McGee’s enrollment goal.

“When we got up to about 45, he said, ‘Gee, I’d really be happy with 60,’” Supernaw says with a wry smile. So Supernaw went out and found them.

“The dean is a tireless worker,” says Dr. Christian Dolder, a former Supernaw student at the University of the Pacific who was one of the first faculty members Supernaw recruited to Wingate. “He would never say how hard he worked, but you knew how hard he worked just based on the output and what he was doing. If your dean is just quietly working really hard, it sets the bar and shows an example for younger faculty of what needs to get done.”

The first cohort of 63 students crammed into the Cannon Building (since renamed the Neu Building), elbow-to-elbow, until Chuck Taylor, at the time Wingate’s chief financial officer, figured out that if a particular wall was removed, two more rows of desks could be accommodated. Suddenly the cohorts could swell to 72. “But again, that was like sardines in a can,” Supernaw says.

That was OK, because Supernaw knew the cramped conditions wouldn’t last forever. McGee was working on a solution: a dedicated health-sciences building. The University raised the $14.5 million needed to construct a three-story building, and in 2011 the Levine College of Health Sciences opened on the north side of campus, west of Main Street.

But Supernaw’s main concern was not the facilities. He wanted a groundbreaking program that produced pharmacists who were ready to go to work the day after graduation.

Practical experience

With a blank slate, Supernaw started creating the pharmacy school he’d been thinking about for years. At Texas Tech, where he was hired in 1998 after 24 years at his doctoral alma mater, the University of the Pacific, Supernaw was able to teach in both the pharmacy school and the medical school. “What I noticed right away was that the med students said, ‘I don’t even need to go to class. Everything I need to know I learn in the clinic,’” he says. “Now that was an exaggeration, but there’s some truth to it.”

Supernaw knew that as valuable as it is to absorb lessons from a professor and the literature, nothing beats putting your knowledge to work in a clinical setting. The norm at the time was for students to learn in classrooms and labs their first three years before getting practical experience during fourth-year rotations. “I had remembered my education, and it was just classroom, classroom, classroom, with a very little smattering of rotational experiences,” Dolder says, “but you didn’t really get to it until your last year.”

Supernaw thought that method did students a disservice.

“The analogy I always use is playing the piano,” he says. “You can listen to lectures until the cows come home, but you’re not going to be any better at playing the piano. But if you practice and practice and practice you get better. And that’s the whole philosophy.”

So he implemented a curriculum that put students into a clinical setting starting in their first year. It was somewhat revolutionary, but it’s proved to be a successful model, one that has since been adopted by much larger institutions.

“He designed an incredible program that was revolutionary for pharmacy schools,” Durham says. “Probably his biggest legacy is that he moved the needle.”

In the first graduating class, in 2007, only one person did not pass the national licensing exam on the first try (that student passed on the second attempt). The next year, the rate was 100 percent.

“I must say I was nervous when our first graduates took the exam,” Supernaw says. “But in 2008 it was 100 percent passing it the first time, and that was unheard of. I felt for the first two classes only one student not passing it in the first sitting was vindication.”

As of 2018, the School of Pharmacy had surpassed the national average in first-time pass rate 10 out of 11 years.

So, the school has been beneficial to the community, sending out qualified pill-dispensers to an area starving for them. But how has it benefited the University? Well, financially, for one thing. Between 2004 and 2018, Wingate’s annual net revenue tripled. Money has been plowed back into graduate programs, and since the pharmacy school launched, Wingate has started programs in physician assistant studies, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and nursing.

Wingate now has more than 1,100 graduate students, nearly matching the number of undergrads back when Supernaw was just starting out at Wingate. The number of students majoring in the sciences (biology, chemistry, pre-health sciences, pre-sport sciences and psychology) rose 321% between 2003 and 2008, from 305 to 1,285. The average academic profile of a Wingate student has risen as a result of improving the University’s prestige and of bringing in more students majoring in the sciences. About a third of students in the pharmacy school in any given year are Wingate undergraduates.

So, legacy secure, what’s next for Supernaw? He says he feels he still has “something left in the tank,” but for now, he’s going to retire to his cane chairs, his courtrooms and his books. He’s read about 70 of the Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels,” and one thing he’s taken from literature over the years helped mold his career and change Wingate University.

“In literature it seems like anybody who’s ever accomplished something has broken the rules, or stretched the rules, or went right up to but didn’t cross the line,” he says. “I can’t think of any character in literature who made an impact just by doing what he was told.”