Inside veterinary education at Long Island University

New veterinary program at center of private institution's rebirth, officials say

November 21, 2019 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of Long Island University
Dr. Carmen Fuentealba is founding dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Long Island University. The program is expected to open in August 2020.

There were plenty who said it couldn't be done.

But Long Island University silenced skeptics last month when it received the go-ahead from accreditors to open a college of veterinary medicine, a momentous undertaking for the small and struggling liberal arts enclave in wealthy Brookville, New York.

Wracked by internal strife amid efforts to correct its reputation as an economically fraught undergraduate institution with low enrollment and dismal graduation rates, the university is gunning for a renaissance, with its new college of veterinary medicine at the forefront.

Credit the program's founding dean, Dr. Carmen Fuentealba, for securing in record time what many of her peers have struggled to achieve: a nod from the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education.

The COE's letter of reasonable of assurance, received by LIU on Oct. 16, is a first step toward accreditation, indicating that a college may begin enrolling students and provide them with access to federal student aid. 

Opening day is Aug. 24, 2020. Already, LIU has received enough qualified applicants to fill the program's 100 seats, Fuentealba said. "The applications are coming from all over the country," she said. "A lot of students are interested in the profession. We haven't done any marketing."

Other new veterinary programs haven't enjoyed as streamlined a process. The University of Arizona, for example, also received reasonable assurance last month and will open at the same time as LIU, with 100 students. But unlike LIU, UA had struggled since 2013 to meet the U.S. accreditation standards, having been rejected by the COE initially.

Still, LIU has had its own hurdles: disgruntled faculty who say the program drains resources from other corners of the institution, putting the freeze on tenured positions and salaries; and a battle with conservationists over historic farmland on Commack, Long Island, a potential site for part of the veterinary college. The farmland is a 45-minute drive from LIU's Post campus, where the veterinary college is based. 

Fearing for their jobs, sources at LIU who reached out to the VIN News Service would not speak on the record. Anonymously, they paint a picture of a university in turmoil.

But Fuentealba says that's a picture of an institution in flux. In an interview, she and colleagues Randy Burd, senior vice president for academic affairs, and Chief Finance Officer Chris Fevola gave their view of what's happening at LIU, which they say is in the midst of rebirth and reinvention.

"I always felt that I was supposed to be here to do something big," Fuentealba said. "This is it."

Fuentealba grew up in southern Chile and spent the 1980s studying veterinary medicine, first as a veterinary student at the Universidad Austral de Chile and then at the University of Liverpool in England, where she earned a doctorate in veterinary pathology. She completed a veterinary pathology residency program at Texas A&M University, then taught at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. In 2002, she joined Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, as associate dean for clinical programs and a founding faculty member. She was later a founding faculty member and assistant dean of students at the University of Calgary College of Veterinary Medicine.

In 2011, she accepted a job in the Caribbean as a faculty member and administrator at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, then in the midst of the U.S. accreditation process. During her time in academia, Fuentealba sharpened her knowledge of the COE's 11 accreditation standards, which she put into service at LIU when she arrived in August 2017.

"I learned from previous experiences: I was founding faculty at two schools before that, Western and Calgary," she said. "The reality is that I came into the project knowing exactly what is it that we needed to do because I had been learning as a result of working closely with deans since 1995."

Fuentealba said she didn't aspire to be a dean, but creating a veterinary school was a challenge she found appealing. So when LIU came calling, she quickly got to work. "In December of 2017, we contacted the Council on Education to request a visit," she said. "We decided to go straight into a comprehensive site visit instead of a consultative site visit."

Comprehensive site visits are formal reviews by the COE. They typically are preceded by consultative site visits, during which representatives of the COE give guidance to the applicant before the formal review.

Fuentealba also started fundraising and recruiting faculty right away to build research capacity so that when the COE visited in 2018, "We were prepared," she said. "I knew we'd be ready." 

LIU's veterinary college employs 16 full-time faculty members, and more job offers are in the pipeline. Eventually, the program will employ 59 full-time equivalents. Officials have no plans to build an on-site teaching hospital. Instead, the program will employ a distributive model of clinical education that sends veterinary students for clinical training through affiliate practicesThe more than 50 affiliates include the Sloan Kettering Memorial Center Center, the Bronx Zoo and Long Island Veterinary Specialists. "Our clinical program is 32 weeks, and 20 of those weeks are for rotation," Fuentealba said.

Fuentealba added that she's in talks with other veterinary colleges about hosting LIU students who are interested in taking off-campus clinical electives. "At least six veterinary schools are prepared to take our students," she said. 

The program is in good shape financially, according to Fevola, who serves as vice president for finance, treasurer and CFO. The $40 million it needed to cover startup costs is largely in hand, he said, thanks to private fundraising and $12 million from New York state.

Tuition-supported private university

Tuition for the LIU veterinary college is set at $55,000 for the coming academic year; fees are another $1,916. Including room and board, books, supplies and insurance, the total cost of education is projected to run between $76,716 and $87,416 per year, depending on whether students live on or off campus. (The housing market in Long Island is one of the costliest in the country.)

Officials at LIU say tuition is less than or comparable to what other U.S. programs charge veterinary students. "We believe we are very competitively placed regionally, and are in very good company with Tufts [$58,860], the University of Pennsylvania [$61,550] and Cornell [$54,744]," Fevola said. 

New Yorkers, however, could get a better price on tuition and fees at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca — or, for that matter, at any of about half of the 30 U.S. veterinary schools that are currently operating, according to data from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Veterinary education in the U.S. typically is offered at land-grant institutions or private universities with hybrid land-grant programs. As such, the tuition charged to their students can be lower, reflecting state subsidies that aren't offered by strictly private institutions, LIU included. 

At Cornell tuition and fees are $37,136 for state residents attending the veterinary program. That's 32% less than what non-New Yorkers pay. At Tufts University, Massachusetts residents attending the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine get a $7,000 discount. At the University of Pennsylvania, in-state students receive a $10,000 stipend for veterinary education, bringing tuition and fees to $51,550. 

Education subsidies can be greater still at public institutions, making them generally the least expensive option for residents of the states where they're located. Among the nation's 32 veterinary programs, the most expensive is at The Ohio State University, where veterinary education is $72,293 in tuition and fees for the 2019-20 academic year. Ohio residents, however, pay $32,957 — less than half of what it costs out-of-state students. 

Other examples: Tuition and fees at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine are $18,960 a year for North Carolina residents; nonresidents pay $45,160. In-state students pay between $25,000 and $26,000 a year in tuition and fees at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; those who aren't residents of Virginia or Maryland pay $54,510 a year. (Both NC State and OSU permit out-of-state students to become residents after one year, making them eligible for in-state tuition.)

The figures do not include living costs and other expenses, such as student loan interest. Whatever the costs, many aspiring veterinarians are willing to pay, even if it means accumulating six-figure student-loan debt. Asked whether LIU plans to help students mitigate debt, officials said the program will offer financial counseling and education. 

Veterinary education, Burd said, is in demand.

"This was part of our vision of the university," he said. "We want to provide students with programs that we believe have high demand and underserved need. And we saw great opportunity in this area."

Dissent spurred by change

Faculty in other departments — particularly undergraduate sectors — are less enthusiastic about the program. Some report that their offices have been displaced by veterinary faculty. Others report that LIU is whittling personnel and funding for liberal arts majors that have long been a staple of the university.

Last year, the university embarked on efforts to merge its two campuses, LIU Post and LIU Brooklyn, and join their athletic departments to form a "more robust" program to compete in NCAA Division 1. The decision was met with backlash.

Some LIU faculty believe the decision was made to cut costs and divert those funds to help establish the veterinary school.

The criticism, Fevola said, stems from an institutional culture unaccustomed to "dynamic change."

"There are inherent growing pains for an institution as it reinvents itself," he said. "And it's not a phenomenon unique to LIU that we're being challenged."

During the past five years, LIU has gone from a sleepy local university to a more respected institution, he said: "In 2012, our Brooklyn campus had a 9% four-year graduation rate. Today, that rate is more than double. When you change programs and service models necessary to improve outcomes, it's human nature for there to be a population that's anxious."

The university has raised its standards, he said, and higher quality programs draw more accomplished applicants. 

"The average SATs of students we recruit have improved dramatically; for many years, we accepted undergraduate students with SATs below 1,000," Fevola said. A minimum score of 1,000 is now the cutoff for acceptance, he said, which has had a desired effect: "For the fall 2019 term, average SAT scores have approached 1,200."

Veterinary education will further elevate LIU's reputation, Fevola believes. "We're not just building a vet school," he said. "We're building the future of LIU."

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