Dean Recognized for Elevating Institutions and Serving Others

Posted on January 25, 2024

Dean Barksdale standing at a podium for the School of Nursing.

Determination – some might say persistence – has been a hallmark of Debra Barksdale’s life and career.

Now the dean of UNC Greensboro’s School of Nursing, Barksdale grew up in a poor family in a rural area of southern Virginia, where career options were limited for minorities. Once she saw Diahann Carroll play a nurse on a 1960s TV sitcom, she became determined to become one.

Her guidance counselor encouraged her to enter a hospital diploma program, but Barksdale resisted, instead landing a spot at her state’s flagship institution, the University of Virginia.

“I was always in pursuit of something that I thought was better,” Barksdale says.

Raising the Bar for Nurses

Recently selected president-elect of the American Academy of Nursing (AAN), the country’s top honorific organization for nurses, Barksdale continues to push for a better future – not for herself, but for the people serving and aspiring to serve in her profession and for those they care for.

Before Barksdale was selected, she had served two terms on AAN’s board of directors, and she was a liaison to expert panels and the organization’s equity, diversity, and inclusion committee. She also was a co-chair of the policy conference planning committee.

AAN fellows represent nursing’s most accomplished leaders in policy, research, administration, practice, and academia, and Barksdale’s election is a sign that she has made a significant mark not only in the profession but also at UNCG.

Making a Difference

After earning her bachelor of science degree in nursing, Barksdale became a registered nurse and found out about nurse practitioners. She decided she wanted to be one, so she went back to school: first to Howard University, then to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, earning M.S.N. and Ph.D. degrees, and a certificate in teaching as well as certification as a family nurse practitioner.

The idea of pursuing a Ph.D. was sparked while Barksdale was teaching at Howard University. She became concerned about high blood pressure in Black people and applied to the University of Michigan to pursue research into the topic after an interaction with Nola Pender, a renowned nurse scientist.

“The way you make a difference is becoming leader of the thing,” she explains.

After completing her Ph.D., opportunities to lead came quickly – although not necessarily easily.

“I wasn’t one who was just given stuff,” Barksdale says. “I always had to compete – and I didn’t always get what I wanted on the first try.”

A Thoughtful, Analytical Leader

As a leader, Barksdale takes a thoughtful, analytical approach, looking at things from multiple perspectives with the goal of capturing the bigger picture. She’s also not afraid of risk or taking chances. That attitude has helped her lead change at each of the schools of nursing that she’s served.

On the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Barksdale led the family nurse practitioner program as well as a new doctor of nursing practice program.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, as a professor and associate dean, she helped grow student enrollment, led development of a revised nursing leadership and organizational science concentration, and launched a new graduate certificate in healthcare innovation.

And under Barksdale’s leadership as dean, UNCG’s School of Nursing has added a family nurse practitioner concentration, incorporated virtual reality into nursing classes, and increased enrollment in its registered nurse-to-bachelor of science in nursing (RN to BSN) and traditional BSN programs.

Along Barksdale’s career path, there were several “firsts.” At UNC-CH, she was the School of Nursing’s first minority tenured full professor. At the UNCG nursing school, she was the first Black dean. And during the Obama Administration, she became the first nurse appointed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute’s Board of Governors.

‘To whom much is given’

Barksdale says she didn’t set out to be a leader, but a guiding principle she learned from the Bible — “to whom much is given, much will be required” — put her on that track.

“It’s about being a servant,” she says. “I want to be able to create opportunities and support people.”

Having previously served as president of the National Association of Nurse Practitioner Faculties, Barksdale’s impending AAN presidency won’t be her first time leading a national organization.

“I do not know many women of color who had the opportunity to serve as president of two national organizations,” she notes.

‘We are the standard’

Having made deep connections across the nursing profession nationally and having studied and served at five universities with strong reputations, Barksdale holds a unique perspective on UNCG’s School of Nursing. Those flagship and Research 1 institutions, she notes “are not better than UNCG, just different.”

“I want to elevate the status of UNCG, both in a practical way and in the minds of people, my faculty, and staff, so we are not always comparing ourselves to others,” Barksdale says.

Barksdale says boosting the school’s stature is about much more than bragging rights. It will bring more resources to the school and allow it to attract a more diverse student body, increase enrollment, and expand academic offerings.

Noting an “amazing” faculty, staff, and student body, Barksdale remains excited and happy at UNCG.

“I wanted to be at a place where I could make an impact,” she says. “And UNCG has been just that.”

Story by Dee Shore, AMBCopy LLC
Photography by Sean Norona, Martin W. Kane, University Communications

Dean Barksdale giving a speech at a podium.

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