Plans for new veterinary school in Kentucky stall

State veterinary association raises concerns about proposed program at Murray State

Published: April 24, 2024

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Murray State University's plan for a veterinary college proposes 50 to 70 seats, with half of the seats reserved for Kentucky residents.

Murray State University's ambition to open Kentucky's first veterinary school hit a roadblock last week when the General Assembly adjourned without approving a bill necessary to start a veterinary college. Nevertheless, indications are that the effort will be revived when lawmakers reconvene in January.

HB 400, which would allow Murray State to offer a doctorate of veterinary medicine, passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin in February, but its companion, SB 189, stalled in the Senate Education Committee. There, the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association, a trade group to which more than 90% of the state's 1,600-plus veterinarians belong, expressed concern to the committee that the proposed program does not include a veterinary teaching hospital. The KVMA also questioned plans to compress what is usually a four-year curriculum into three years.

However, the initiative has advanced in other ways. The state budget approved last month includes money for a variety of capital projects at Murray State, including $60 million for a veterinary sciences building, according to a university news release. The facility will be designed to "enhance future and existing programs," the news release states. Murray State has undergraduate programs in veterinary technology and a pre-veterinary medicine track.

In brief

Additionally, a joint resolution signed by Gov. Andy Beshear on April 17 directs the Council on Postsecondary Education, a state agency, to hire a consultant to assess the feasibility of establishing a veterinary school at Murray State, among other projects. The findings are expected to be presented to the General Assembly next year.  

Murray State President Bob Jackson aims to renew efforts to secure the General Assembly's approval to offer veterinary education when lawmakers reconvene in January, according to Murray State officials. The proposed program comes at a time of unprecedented expansion in U.S. veterinary education. At least a dozen new schools are proposed or underway, most expected to open between this year and 2027. At present, there are 33 existing veterinary schools in the country.

No teaching hospital

During a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 22, Dr. Jim Weber, governmental relations chair of the KVMA, said that his organization has "serious concerns" about the veterinary school proposal, as described in a report by Murray State.

"Chief among our concerns is Murray's plan to use a distributive model of instruction, a rather recent method of clinical instruction for veterinary students," he said, referring to an approach whereby students acquire clinical experience off-campus, usually at private businesses, instead of at a traditional teaching hospital run by the school.

The approach first appeared in U.S. veterinary academia with the opening of the veterinary college at Western University of Health Sciences in California in 2003.

Citing the Murray State report, which identifies six programs in North America that use the distributed model, Weber pointed out that "only two of the six have achieved full accreditation."

However, three such veterinary programs have been fully accredited: Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee; the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada; and Western U's program, which has been fully accredited since 2010 but was not named in the report.

In recent years, most new veterinary schools have adopted distributed learning in large part because it costs less. Building and maintaining a traditional teaching hospital is expensive. Murray State estimates that constructing a teaching hospital would add $150 million to the $89 million needed to establish a veterinary school.

Cost aside, proponents of distributed learning say it offers students real-world, diverse experiences by exposing them to a variety of clinical settings. Critics say the approach lacks oversight and can be highly variable.

Growth in veterinary education

"Veterinarians and students involved in the distributed model have seen inconsistency in training," Weber told the Senate committee. "While one site may offer an excellent experience, another may not," he said, noting that not all practices could meet the "rigorous standards" that a school-based program would have to meet to be accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education.

The distributed model also requires students "to be constantly changing sites," Weber said. As an example, he said students in their final year at LMU participate in 12 rotations: "Students are establishing a new place to live and work every four weeks."

When asked by the VIN News Service, LMU confirmed the four-week schedule but clarified that only nine of the rotations are at private practices, not 12, and sites are organized into hubs. This allows students to remain in the same general area even though they switch practices, said Dr. Stacy Anderson, dean of the program. She also noted that clinical sites in a distributed education model are approved by accreditors. 

Pushing students too fast?

Another concern that the KVMA identified is Murray State's intent to adopt an accelerated curriculum that is completed in three years rather than the four that are typical in North America. Weber said hastening training eliminates the downtime that students need, given the intensity of coursework.

"At least two schools that I'm aware of, University of Tennessee and Michigan State University, tried a three-year program only to abandon it due to the stress put on their students," he told senators.

The VIN News Service was unable to reach representatives of the program in Tennessee. However, Michigan State confirmed that from 1965 to 1979, the veterinary college offered a 33-month program. It was discontinued because it placed excessive demands on students and faculty and did not provide enough time for research and renewal, according to the Office of Marketing and Communications. 

One school, however, currently offers an accelerated curriculum. The University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine launched a three-year veterinary program in 2020. Although the program qualifies for full accreditation, it has not yet received it. That is partly due to the fact that fewer than 80% of its initial graduating class passed the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, a crucial criterion for full accreditation. Last month, the program received provisional accreditation through June 15, 2025.

Weber said the KVMA also believes that Murray State might be underestimating the number of faculty and funding required to operate a high-quality program. He suggested that an in-state program may not be needed at all, since Kentucky has partnerships with Auburn University and Tuskegee University in Alabama. Combined, these programs annually reserve 41 first-year seats for Kentucky residents.

The majority of these seats, all but three, are at Auburn, a public university that provides Kentucky residents with in-state tuition rates. The state of Kentucky, in turn, covers the difference between in-state and out-of-state fees, which amounts to $5.6 million annually. 

Most residents who enroll in these programs eventually return to Kentucky to practice, research from Auburn suggests. 

"If Kentucky opens a veterinary school, we will very likely be giving up these spaces [at Auburn and Tuskegee] ... as resources would and should be directed to an in-state school when opened," he said. "The KVMA wants to ensure that any new scenario that might replace our current system will produce equally qualified veterinarians."

A long time coming?

The pitch for veterinary education in Kentucky centers on easing a shortage of practitioners, particularly in large animal medicine, in a state with a sizable agriculture economy.

Jackson, the university president, told senators: "In the absence of a veterinary consultation, producers may use veterinary pharmaceuticals inappropriately, putting a potentially dangerous product into the food chain."

Sen. Danny Carroll, a sponsor of the legislation enabling Murray State to establish a veterinary school, rebutted the KVMA's criticism of Murray State's proposed teaching approach, saying that the national licensing exam that all veterinary school graduates must pass would ensure that practitioners were trained well.

"If you have to pass a test to practice in the state of Kentucky, does it really matter which model it's by?" Carroll asked.

He suggested that the state could support a veterinary school and continue its deal with Auburn and Tuskegee to set aside seats for Kentucky residents.

"... I'm not trying to demean what Auburn does — great program, nothing but good things to say about that, and that would still be an option for students if they choose that path," Carroll said. "But if we're going to address this ... we've got to start thinking outside the box in meeting the needs of this Commonwealth. ... That's what we're here for as legislators."

The idea of a veterinary school in Kentucky isn't new. In 1973, the Murray State Board of Regents passed a similar resolution to build a veterinary school, but it didn't happen.

"So," Jackson told senators, "we've been at this for 51 years."

April 25 correction: The story has been revised to reflect that the Universidad Ana G. Méndez veterinary school in Puerto Rico will open in 2024, not 2025.

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