Natural Bedfellows: University of Phoenix Doctoral Programs Meeting the Call in Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s ‘The Responsive Ph.D.’

Natural Bedfellows: University of Phoenix Doctoral Programs Meeting the Call in Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s ‘The Responsive Ph.D.’

By Ryan Rominger, Ph.D., LCPC-PIT

Doctoral education can be a fickle beast: at times changes to education pedagogy seem slow, and at other times recklessly fast. The slow route is often critiqued by students or administrators who wish to see dynamic programs adapt to meet the changing educational desires of students, shifts in technology, and unique opportunities and trends.

Alternately, the fast route is often critiqued by faculty senates, who have witnessed educational fads come and go, and who are typically tasked with maintaining educational excellence on a daily basis.

Occasionally, an institution finds itself–intentionally or unintentionally­–ahead of the curve. One instance that has become increasingly prevalent is the case of the University of Phoenix (UOPX) doctoral programs with respect to the calls put forth by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s The Responsive Ph.D. While UOPX does not currently offer Ph.D. degrees, their doctoral programs align closely with the call-to-action found within the Foundation’s The Responsive Ph.D. report.                                                                                                    

The Responsive Ph.D.

in 2005, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation engaged 20 universities to explore extant literature on doctoral education, with the goal of establishing an understanding of best practices. The resulting initiative and report were titled The Responsive Ph.D., with the report detailing four main themes: new paradigms, new practices, new people, and new partnerships. Below I’ve highlighted two of those themes, New People and New Partnerships, and how the University of Phoenix meets these specific calls to action. In a future post, I will address how UOPX meets the remaining two themes, New Paradigms and New Practices.

New People

Doctoral education in the United States has often been criticized for its predominantly White, upper-middle class cultural norms, to the point that higher education has been referred to as The Ivory Tower. Incidentally, according to Merriam-Webster, the ivory tower also implies a detached, aloof approach, with those inside removed from practical, daily activities. The Responsive Ph.D. calls academicians to break this perception, especially the ‘white, middle-class’ part, by engaging individuals who have traditionally been removed from doctoral academic pursuits. To do this, the authors urge doctoral programs to reach out to diverse ethnic and cultural populations, and individuals who come from less advantaged economic backgrounds. Doing so may help bring unique approaches to the challenges faced in today’s world. Additionally, the unique contributions from diverse populations within the United States may contribute to, as Nerad and Evans note in their edited book Globalization and Its Impacts on the Quality of PhD Education: Forces and Forms in Doctoral Education Worldwide, an increasingly global economy influenced by a doctoral labor force which is itself mobile, moving from country to country.

The University of Phoenix, incidentally, has been doing exactly this for some time. The current student population consists of students of which 60.6% are first generation college attendees (i.e., parents did not attend college), 32% are African American, 18% Hispanic, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% Native American/Alaskan Native (Waldrop, 2017, May 23; Waldrop, 2017, September 12). Similarly, the current doctoral population consists of 53.6% who’s parents did not attend college, with 46% African American, 10% Hispanic, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% Native American/Alaskan (Waldrop, 2017 September 12; Waldrop, 2017 September 26). From its beginning, the University of Phoenix has been seen as a place where people from non-traditional backgrounds can come to gain an education, furthering them along the path of success. John Sperling’s vision from the start was to provide practical education to working adults which will help them to advance in the workplace. And, within the doctoral program, the diverse student population has led to a growing exploration of real-world topics within diverse communities (for example, Evolving Attitudes Toward Lesbian and Gay Men in Government Unions by Dr. Ponzio; Leadership and Organizational Culture Influence on African American Women in Law Enforcement by Dr. Gomez; or Relationship Between Engagement Indicators and the Persistence of First Time, Full-Time Post-Secondary Hispanic Students by Dr. Luciano-Wong). Clearly, UOPX has been engaged in the call to engage more diverse people, including the working adult population, even before the Woodrow Wilson Foundation published The Responsive Ph.D.

New Partnerships

In addition to reaching out to new people, The Responsive Ph.D. calls for reaching out beyond the academy. By creating relationships with local community organizations, non-profits, government organizations, and businesses, doctoral education can become engaged in practical, daily problem-solving. A study reported on the Cambridge University website, titled Exploding the Ivory Tower, details how in the United Kingdom academics and researchers routinely engage in knowledge exchange, in addition to standard practices such as patenting or creating spin-off businesses. Fortunately, this practice is not limited to the UK.  Additionally, doctoral education can be a further bridge to non-academic constituents, with doctoral students completing research or capstone projects within those organizations. A reciprocal relationship may prove beneficial, with businesses, community and non-profit organizations, and government agencies providing feedback to doctoral program administrators regarding the needs of the industry.

Once again, the University of Phoenix aligns with The Responsive Ph.D.’s call for development of new partnerships. Through the Knowledge Without Boundaries programs, the School of Advanced Studies, the home of UOPX doctoral programs, and Research Centers connect with local community members and agencies, healthcare researchers, businesses, and non-profits to provide doctoral faculty and students with information regarding current research trends and needs. Those faculty and students then spend the day developing their own research agendas. This process creates a direct link between doctoral faculty and students with non-academic institutions.


The remaining two themes within The Responsive Ph.D. – new paradigms and new practices - are by no means absent from the University’s current doctoral programs. However, due to length, discussion of the University’s alignment with these themes will come in another post. For now, suffice it to say that the University is clearly meeting the call put forth to expand doctoral education beyond its traditionally viewed constraints.

Waldrop, A. (2017, May 23). UOPX data for the 2016 AAR-05-23-2017. University of Phoenix,

Institutional Reporting & Analytics.

Waldrop, A. (2017, September 12). Facts at a Glance by College and State_FY17Q4. University

of Phoenix, Institutional Reporting & Analytics

Waldrop, A. (2017, September 26). First Generation Doctoral Students. University of Phoenix,

Institutional Reporting & Analytics.

Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. (2005). The responsive Ph.D.: Innovation in

U.S. doctoral education. Princeton, NJ: Author.

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