Some might say the Duke School of Nursing is often one of the most forgotten aspects of the University, but an alumnus’ recent donation is bringing the School’s “unbelievable trajectory” the attention it deserves.

J. Michael Pearson, chairman and CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. and Pratt ‘81, donated a $15 million gift to the School of Nursing in the name of his wife Christine Pearson, Nursing ’84. The donation will name the School’s building after Christine Pearson, though the family did not request the name change, as well as allow the rapidly growing School—which has jumped in seven years from number 29 to number seven in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of top nursing schools—to physically expand.

“I am really proud of where the School had come and I was really proud of what they’d done,” Christine Pearson said. “I’m really hoping that our gift is going to make a difference in the School but hopefully [also] perpetuating the path it’s already on.”

Christine Pearson started at Duke Nursing School in the Fall of 1980. At that time, Nursing was an undergraduate school—prospective Duke students applied to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, the Pratt School of Engineering or the School of Nursing. During her first semester, however, administrators informed Pearson and her classmates that they would be the last-ever class of undergraduate nurses. The University had decided to phase out the school, ostensibly for budget reasons, she said.

“We were so sad [because] they were closing the school and we felt it was wrong they didn’t tell us,” Pearson recalled. “There was a whole tradition that got lost.”

The well-loved traditions included a big-sister mentoring program and ceremonies for the presentation of the graduates’ uniforms and nursing school pins, she added.

“There was a sense of family almost,” she said. “There was a progression­—each class was sort of special.”

The Nursing School transitioned from an undergraduate school to an accelerated nursing program, which now offers a degree in 16 months to students who already hold a Bachelors in Science. Pearson became reacquainted with the School two years ago when she decided to join the Nursing School Alumni Council.

After joining the Council, she said she was impressed by the School’s growth—and surprised by the general lack of awareness about the School itself throughout the University.

“The Nursing School is sort of like the stepchild of the University—nobody really knows about it,” Pearson said. “But it’s one of the biggest schools on campus and was recently ranked seventh in the country!”

Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and chief executive officer of the Duke University Health System, said the Nursing School’s increase in ranking is particularly notable given how quickly it occurred.

“The last seven years have been a remarkable and almost unbelievable trajectory for the School of Nursing,” Dr. Dzau said. “The Nursing School going from number 29 to number 27 would [have been] an improvement, but going from number 29 [in 2004] to number seven [in 2011] in seven years is unbelievable all together.”

Dr. Dzau cited Dean of the School of Nursing Catherine Gilliss’ leadership, vision and execution as the catalyst for the School’s sudden rise in ranking. The School’s nursing Ph.D. program began during her tenure as dean, and enrollment now exceeds 700 students—the largest number of students in the school’s 80-year history.

Gilliss said the Pearson donation is an affirming response to the School’s changes throughout recent years and is a testament to the hard work of the School’s faculty and staff.

She also noted that the donation is the second largest gift ever given to a school of nursing, next to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s $100 million dollar donation to the University of California-Davis to create their nursing school, which admitted its first class Fall 2010. The largest previous gift to Duke’s School of Nursing was a $6,000,000 donation from the Helene Fuld Health Trust Fund.

J. Michael Pearson said he hopes the donation will attract awareness to the importance of the nursing profession as well as inspire others to give to the School.

“I hope the gift brings some publicity to this School and will trigger other people willing to give anything of themselves,” he said. “Duke has the potential to be the best nursing school in the country and the world, just like they do in everything else.”