Government orders COE to mend rift with veterinarians

Auditors want to know why AVMA accrediting body removed council members

Published: December 16, 2014
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News Service photo
AVMA and COE members went before a U.S Department of Education panel last week in a bid for re-recognition as the nation’s evaluator of veterinary education. They came away with a list of ordered improvements. Facing the panel from left to right is Dr. David Granstrom, AVMA associate executive vice president; Dr. Karen Martens Brandt, assistant director of the AVMA Education and Research Division; COE Vice Chairman Dr. John Pascoe; COE Chairman Dr. Fred Derksen.
If the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education (COE) wants to continue evaluating veterinary education, its leaders must reach out to practitioners who believe the system is plagued by cronyism, a lack of transparency and conflicts of interest.

Letters received at U.S. Department of Education (USDE) offices reveal that at least 837 veterinarians harbor serious complaints about the accreditation system.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), an 18-member oversight committee within USDE, addressed the volume of complaints against the AVMA when it ordered the agency last Thursday to reach out to critics.

“Obviously there’s something, that 900 concerns and complaints came to us,” said Arthur Rothkopf, NACIQI vice chairman and president emeritus of Lafayette College. “It’s very extraordinary to have this number. Obviously there’s a political problem here, some kind of internal politics.”

COE Chairman Dr. Fred Derksen has since described the NACIQI examination as “routine,” noting in a letter emailed Monday to AVMA members: “We will continue to work with the USDE to meet the remaining requirements within the next six to twelve months. We have learned from this experience, and look forward to working with our members and colleagues to uphold professional standards and preserve the integrity of the veterinary professional degree.”

On the table is recognition as the nation’s sole accreditor of veterinary education, a distinction the AVMA COE has held since the early 1950s. NACIQI granted the COE an extension on that status during a hearing on Dec. 11 in Arlington, Virginia, but not before ordering that several fixes be made within a year.

They are:

  • Demonstrate wide acceptance among practitioners.
  • Correct a disparity whereby COE standards heed North American Veterinary Licensing Exam test scores, but the exam is not widely taken by students at foreign accredited programs.
  • Systematically review standards rather than doing it piecemeal.
  • Solicit feedback from all relevant constituencies in the review, and afford them meaningful opportunity to provide input.
  • Ensure that the COE is compliant with written policies for the revision of accreditation standards.
  • Establish clear and effective controls against conflicts of interest.

Last Thursday marked the second time in two years that the AVMA COE has testified before NACIQI, which typically reviews accrediting bodies every five years. NACIQI auditors took a hard look at the AVMA COE in 2012 at the urging of veterinarians who stated in testimony before the panel that the accrediting body is overly influenced by AVMA politics and operates outside federal guidelines and directives. 

In December 2012, NACIQI ordered the COE to make 14 major changes to how it accredits domestic programs. The directives included to become more transparent, consistent, inclusive and to weed out conflicts of interest.

AVMA and COE officials had expressed to NACIQI that conflicts of interest alleged during 2012 testimony had been resolved, namely by inviting the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges to select half of the COE's members.

On Thursday, concerns about conflicts of interest resurfaced. 

Rothkopf urged his NACIQI colleagues to again require the AVMA and COE to address whether conflicting interests are at play after the panel heard from two ex-COE members. Those members testified that they’d been expelled from the volunteer body for voicing opposition to its evaluation of foreign schools and the accreditation of programs without traditional veterinary teaching hospitals.

The displaced veterinarians, Drs. Mary Beth Leininger and William Kay, were removed from the COE in 2014 and 2007, respectively. They sat among veterinarians who testified in opposition to the agency.

Leininger, a former AVMA president who was kicked off the COE last spring after publicly stating concerns that the council’s resources were spread thin by accrediting foreign programs, caught NACIQI’s attention. She laid out details of the seemingly inadequate training provided to COE members and the lack of time they had to review documents — limitations that are accepted because the AVMA holds the political power and purse strings.

“I believe I have the responsibility to inform NACIQI of the dysfunctional and rampant conflicts of interest that exist today and will continue to exist until NACIQI suspends (the COE),” Leininger stated. “Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, you are looking at issues that impact my profession. What you do matters.”

Kay did not testify about why he was removed but said privately that it had to do with his vocal opposition about a bid for accreditation by Western University of Health Sciences' veterinary school. Based in California, the veterinary program was the nation's first to employ a distributed model of learning, allowing the college to forgo the expense of building a teaching hospital in favor of sending students through private practices to gain clinical accumen. 

The program received full accreditation in 2010.

The dismissals were news to USDE staff analyst Jennifer Hoang, who stated with surprise, “This is the first I’ve heard about it.” That spurred concern from NACIQI members who pressed the AVMA and COE for more information.

The COE’s Derksen declined to share many details.

“Are you saying that both individuals dismissed or expelled had conflict of interest issues?” Rothkopf asked Derksen.

Derksen: “I can categorically tell you there was a violation of the conflict of interest policy — a severe violation that expulsion was recommended by vote, and it was a unanimous vote.”

Rothkopf: “And you can represent that this was not a result of an opinion expressed that the individual was taking a view contrary to the council?”

Derksen: “It certainly was not part of comments made at council meetings. The case is under appeal at present.”

That’s true, in part. Leininger appealed her dismissal to the COE earlier this year, and it was rejected. The next step is to appeal to the AVMA Board of Governors, and she has yet to do that.

Aside from personnel issues, critics who testified spoke of an AVMA and COE that operates more like an exclusive club than an agency charged with ensuring the quality of veterinary education. Another thorn in the side of some veterinarians is the COE’s accreditation of foreign programs, a self-imposed assignment with no USDE oversight.

Until now, NACIQI paid little attention to practitioner discontent regarding the COE’s foreign accreditation affairs. Herman Bounds, director of the USDE’s accreditation group, addressed that during the hearing.

“There are new regulatory changes that happened last year. All foreign accreditors have to be determined (by USDE) for U.S. students of those programs to receive Title IV funds (federal financial aid),” he said.

Bounds added that the USDE will name acceptable foreign-school accreditors by July 2015. “That will then also require the AVMA to address those standards for foreign schools,” he said. “So there’s no overlooking it.”

Dr. David Granstrom, AVMA associate executive vice president and former head of the staff overseeing the COE, said the association is “aware of the change that’s coming.”

“Hopefully, we won’t be too far out of synch” to be tapped as the foreign school accrediting body, he said.

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