How Is That Dental School Coming Along? Q&A With Dean Black

By 2021, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso expects to open its fourth school, the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine. Once approved, the WLHSDM will make history as West Texas’ first-ever dental school.

To learn what this means for the university, and for the Paso del Norte region, we sat down with WLHSDM Dean Richard C. Black, D.D.S., M.S., who has also served as interim dean since 2017.

Q: Why is there a need for a dental school in West Texas?

A: West Texas is an underserved area, as far as people seeing the dentist, as well as the number of dentists. It’s not about the fact that we don’t send folks from West Texas down to schools along I-35 and east of there, but it’s just that we don’t get them back. On the basis of that, the Texas Tech University System and the Board of Regents decided that El Paso was going to be a great place and a meaningful place to have a school built. We want to make sure that the part of Texas that provides most of the food, the fiber and the energy for the rest of Texas receives good oral health care.

Q: What is your vision for the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine?

A: My vision is really a first-class dental school to begin with. It will be the newest school in the country. It will be the most technologically advanced. It is going to have the most innovative curriculum in the country. It’s going to provide, certainly, a place where oral health care at its best is going to be taught and practiced. It’s going to be a place where the people of West Texas will be able to come and get care. It’s going to distribute students out around this particular part of Texas, so that they’re exposed to West Texas and the kind of dentistry that is required here. I think it will be a great research and educational institution for Southern Arizona, New Mexico and all of Texas.

Q: The WLHSDM is looking at its first class of dental students in 2021. Walk us through some of what is happening between now and then to get the dental school up and running.

A: A lot is going on. Most importantly, two things. One is the application to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. This is a combination of documentation for the need for dentists in the region, and a proposal for the curriculum, faculty and support services. So that is an important study that we are preparing for the coordinating board as we speak. The second important thing is to become accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). CODA has some very rigorous standards that the school is going to have to live up to in its initial application. So we’re preparing that kind of groundwork now so that the school can open its doors.

Q: What impact do you think the school will have in the community of El Paso?

A: I think the school is going to have a terrific impact. I think people are very excited. I think the dental community is very excited. I think all health care personnel in El Paso are excited because we’re bringing what is now becoming one of the cornerstones of a person’s health, which is oral health. We’re bringing an educational institution that will have some, before too long, world-class people here teaching, doing research, moving here, buying homes, mentoring our local population of health care professionals and working with pharmacists, nurses, physicians and allied health care people. It’s a very exciting time for this region.

Q: As you mentioned, El Pasoans seem very excited about a dental school opening in their city. What opportunities are there for the community to get involved and help the school?

A: I think there are many opportunities. Certainly, this school is not being raised up by TTUHSC El Paso all by itself. There are opportunities now for all El Pasoans to help. Thanks to the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation and the Paso del Norte Foundation, we’re starting with some start-up funds, but we need help from everybody.

We’re going to be asking the community to support this school. Whatever they give will come back many times over with the kind of educational institution we’re building here. And as this health sciences center grows, it is going to continue to be a strong economic engine. So, not only are we bringing care to the citizens of El Paso, not only are we bringing a mentorship opportunity, but we’re really bringing research and education to improve the lives of El Pasoans and the surrounding community. I think that’s the most important thing the school brings. We will need your help. It’s a very expensive and rigorous undertaking. Dental schools are expensive to build. They require a lot of technology and equipment, so we’ll be asking for your help.

Q: What advice do you have for an undergraduate college student, or even a high school student, who is excited to hear about a dental school opening in El Paso? What should they be focusing on and studying to prepare themselves to apply for dental school?

A: I think that a young person who is interested in a dental career—and most of the time they are inspired by their own family dentist or dentists they’ve seen—needs to identify someone who can help them in school, such as a counselor. Ask, even as early as junior high and high school, what it is they need to prepare for a stellar college career with an emphasis on science. That would be biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics and physiology. Also join, for instance, a pre-dental club at the university that they go to, so that they are around other young people who are studying the same thing. It’s very competitive to land a spot in today’s dental schools. They’ll need to have outstanding grades to do that.

Q: Why did you go into dentistry?

A: I was inspired because my father was a dentist—in fact, he was an orthodontist. I was very impressed with what he did every day in improving people’s lives. Like many other young people, the dentists who I was exposed to were terrific people, leaders in their communities and folks that I admired, so I prepared myself in college to go to dental school and had a wonderful career in private practice. Nothing could be more exciting right now than helping get this school started.

Q: What have you seen as the biggest changes in dentistry over your career?

A: I think that even today’s dentists are amazed by the speed of the technology and the way that things are happening now. It seems as though there is always another technological advance in how to provide dental care and oral health care. I think that the nexus between oral health care and total body care is very important in what’s happening. More and more that’s now an established fact that, if you have cancer or you have diabetes or if you have other particular problems, having poor oral health care makes those problems worse. Coupled with the technology and the preventive ideas that dentistry has always had, those are the most exciting things that are coming down the pike right now.

Q: Medical students at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine (PLFSOM) learn Spanish while they are enrolled. Are there any similar plans for the WLHSDM?

A: We really admire the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine and the curriculum. The dental school will mirror the kind of curriculum the school of medicine has. People will be very surprised to see that the way medical students are taught here at PLFSOM, which is very innovative, will be similar to how we teach dental students. The idea of Spanish immersion, then medical Spanish, and conversational Spanish, will be a requirement at the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine, just as it is at the school of medicine.