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Veterinary education forced to change strategies

Article

Federal stimulus funding isn't going to bail out veterinary education.

National Report — Federal stimulus funding isn't going to bail out veterinary education. Instead, universities will be forced to make operational changes to cope with slashed budgets.

Most veterinary colleges still don't know what kind of decrease they are looking at in state funding for next year, because most states are staring at millions of dollars in red ink and still don't know themselves where to make the cuts. But chances are all veterinary schools will face a funding decrease.

Balancing act: Veterinary colleges are working to keep their programs intact while coping with diminishing contributions from their states.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says 45 states are predicting shortfalls for next year, and the five states in the black don't house any veterinary schools.

For Pennsylvania, home to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, a predicted $2.3 billion state deficit could mean a 10 percent, $4 million cut to the school's funding if the proposed state budget is adopted in its present form.

In all, the state is reducing funding to 346 programs and eliminating 101. Those that will have funding cuts, like higher-education programs, will all see about the same decrease of 10 percent, says Rendell's spokesman Chuck Ardo.

"They did try to be fair and reduce programs by an equal amount," Ardo says.

Penn Vet is still hoping to renegotiate the cuts, says Dean Joan Hendricks. The school depends on state funding for about 35 percent of its revenues, according to University President Amy Gutmann.

"Although we appreciate that the governor has had to make some very tough budgetary choices for the commonwealth as a result of the recession, the proposed FY10 budget will be particularly challenging for our School of Veterinary Medicine, which is the only vet school in Pennsylvania," Hendricks says.

"The state funds that Penn Vet receives are essential to educate the commonwealth's next generation of veterinarians."

School leaders say a full class will be admitted to the veterinary school this year and that tuition will stay in line with previous years.

But Penn Vet isn't alone.

Diminishing support from state budgets could creating an overall new climate for veterinary education.

"I'll bet that there will be more collaboration among veterinary schools so that experts on different educational topics will be able to share through distance education," says Dr. Jim Thompson, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

Tennessee is facing a $1 billion state deficit this year, as it did last year. State finance department spokeswoman Lola Potter says $771 million from the federal stimulus and recovery package should restore Tennessee's higher-education bodies to 2008 funding levels, but Thompson says he's not holding his breath. The school is moving forward on a 13.6 percent funding-cut calculation and plans to save whatever share it gets of the stimulus money for infrastructure needs.

"The stimulus money may help your glide path a bit, but we're all gliding downward. You can't rely on this as a golden parachute," Thompson says, adding that a return to past levels of funding is not realistic.

"It will be real hard to get it back. We've got a national shortage of veterinarians right now and I think America is in a vulnerable position. Should we have a severe disease outbreak, we would not have enough vets to curtail it quickly," Thompson says. "I think the government needs to recognize this. We're committed to helping as much as we can, but at some point the nation is going to have to turn to veterinary medicine and acknowledge that it needs help."

Veterinarian shortages are starting to be addressed at the national level, through Senate hearings and state loan reimbursement programs for veterinarians who work in underserved areas, but Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, testified in February before the Senate that changes need to be made to education systems and salary offerings for the shortage to be properly addressed.

"It will be critical for Congress to provide meaningful financial resources to our U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine so that facilities can be built to permit increased class size, appropriate more funds for the National Veterinary Medical Services Act of 2003 and provide funding for scholarships to support veterinary medical students working toward a joint public health degree," Pappaioanau testified.

"These students work night and day, dedicated to learning this knowledge, and we owe it to them to have a career that is both intellectually rewarding and financially rewarding," adds Thompson.

Tennessee will deal with its state funding cut by leaving several vacant positions unfilled. Probably about 35 positions will be affected overall, including eight faculty positions, 21 staff jobs, four resident positions and two graduate-student slots. Most of these positions already are open or are term appointments set to expire, so Thompson says students shouldn't notice a change in their educational experience. But the lack of manpower will increase duties for the remaining work force, he says.

"Morale is good here, but I worry about them losing confidence in the economy," Thompson says of his staff.

Though students will continue to have hands-on learning at Tennessee, Thompson admits that endowed funds have taken a hit in the stock market and will mean a drop in the amount of student scholarships that can be awarded.

Other colleges in the same boat include Michigan State University's veterinary program, which will have to cope with a 50 percent funding cut to its school's agriculture and extension programs.

University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine (UC-Davis) Dean Bennie Osburn says cuts proposed under the state's worsening financial situation are the worst he's seen in 40 years and the 2008 cuts the school is already facing are "too deep to be able to maintain the current level of operations." Thirty positions at UC-Davis are empty and can't be filled, and the school has yet to get work of what lies in its future for 2010.

Dr. Glen Hoffsis, dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, likens his school's situation to "A Tale of Two Cities" in his latest campus letter, saying at the same time the school is building a new state-of-the-art, $58 million small-animal teaching hospital it's also anticipating a 10 percent operating budget cut for next year.

"This, coupled with the 14 percent reduction we endured last year, would place the college in considerable jeopardy," Hoffsis wrote.

But Thompson says he has accepted the fact that things are unlikely to improve. Instead, he says, veterinary education will have to change to meet the challenges.

"It won't get any better, but I think all the deans are very service-oriented," he says. "I think everyone is working really hard to get their colleges out from underneath this storm."

Leaders speak out

"The educational model at our veterinary colleges has served us well for decades, but it needs to change if we are to be positioned to meet future societal needs. We will work closely with the AAVMC and other organizations in coming months to reshape our educational system."

— DR. W. RON DEHAVEN, AVMA EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT

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