Vet Schools: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Colleges bruised by ailing economy

January 30, 2009 (published) | January 30, 2009 (revised)
By Jennifer Fiala

In the midst of layoffs, program cuts and legal action, the University of Florida’s (UF) Dr. Glen Hoffsis says he’s experiencing the darkest time in his 12-year history as a dean.

Just two years into heading UF’s veterinary college (after a decade at the helm of The Ohio State University’s DVM program), Hoffsis battles a lawsuit filed by a laid-off professor, $3.2-million in budget losses and rumors that money woes are bringing the ax down on the college’s dermatology rotation.

Reports concerning dermatology aren’t true, Hoffsis insists. But after layoffs, hiring freezes and cutting the college’s small animal reproduction program (a move that prompted the lawsuit), the dean expects to trim another 10 percent for Fiscal-Year 2010. The state, which runs on budgets tied to tourism and real estate transactions and imposes no income tax, has slipped into a serious recession. Colleges like UF’s veterinary program, which relies on state funds for $24 million of its $60-million annual budget, aren’t far removed from the economic heart attack.

“We’re not anticipating shutting down derm; it’s always been an area of strength,” Hoffsis says. “We have 15 faculty and 16 staff positions that are unfilled. The cuts are so deep, we have to reassess virtually everything we do, and that’s putting a lot of stress on everybody.”

Tuition, which increased by 15 percent for last year’s veterinary students, offers little cushion for the financially strapped program. According to Hoffsis, those dollars are directed into state tuition trust fund coffers and mixed with other monies before they’re sent back to the university.

So with that, leaders look to fundraising for relief.

“We have 20 million people in the state and only one college of veterinary medicine,” Hoffsis says. “These people love their pets, but they’re also feeling the recession. Our hope is that we exercise the best leadership that we can exert to hand down these cuts in the least damaging way possible.

“These are the most difficult times I’ve ever faced. No one is immune to this.”

Hoffsis is right; such uncertainty isn’t unique to UF. As the economy turns sharply downward, virtually all of the nation’s 28 veterinary medical programs are feeling the crunch. The topic dominated the annual dean’s conference hosted two weeks ago by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). There, leaders expressed dismay concerning dramatic cuts, hiring freezes and stagnant pay.

“Overall you’re certainly going to find that colleges of veterinary medicine are having a tough budget time,” says Dr. Mike Chaddock, AAVMC associate executive director.

Desperate, veterinary medical leaders are aiming for a long shot — getting the profession named in the federal government’s economic stimulus package.

The legislation aims to bolster the nation’s sagging economy by providing company incentives to create jobs and granting economic relief to individuals and state governments crippled by the recession. In letters to House and Senate parties responsible for crafting the bills’ language, AAVMC asks that $1.5 billion be earmarked for infrastructure improvements on veterinary college campuses.

“The pitch is absolutely being made,” AAVMC Executive Director Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou says. “In a way, it’s a bailout. Veterinary medicine is critical to our food supply, public health and emergency preparedness and response. We have to articulate and present some evidence that veterinary medicine is important to the overall economy. I think we have a winning argument for that.”

The House’s $819-billion version of the bill, passed Wednesday night, carves no money out for veterinary medicine. Still, a broad brick-and-mortar program exists in the language, which funnels $6 billion to agencies like the National Institutes of Health for infrastructure improvements in higher education. If the program survives Senate debate and conference committee negotiations, those grants likely will be issued on a competitive basis.

Dr. Bennie Osburn supports government intervention, especially if it means construction will begin on a $94-million building to house research and basic sciences faculty at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis), where he heads the institution’s veterinary medical program.

The shovel-ready project was scheduled to move forward with lease revenue bonds, on which the state can no longer make payments, Dean Osburn explains. The hold-off, he adds, has done nothing to boost morale at a university that’s bleeding faculty and staff. Right now, 44 positions remain unfilled due to layoffs and departures within the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“And I don’t know what else is coming down the pike,” Osburn says.

His ominous tone reflects the mood of a state facing an 18-month budget shortfall of $42 billion and a governor forecasting bankruptcy by February. Osburn predicts he’ll be handed down a mandate to chop $2.5 million to $3 million from the program’s already ailing budget, with additional cuts expected next year. The reductions come at a time when leaders had hoped to add more seats for students tracking in food-animal medicine and public health (although there are no guarantees that they would follow those career paths).

When a school relies on $41 million in state funds to run its teaching hospital and program, much of that coming from an ailing real-estate industry, it’s a recipe for more layoffs and cutbacks on the number of residents being accepted — not expansion, Osburn says.

Adding to the program’s money woes is a slowdown at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and a dry spell in philanthropic support. While tuition increased 7 percent this year and likely will be raised again next year, those dollars funnel into a central pool for the university’s use. One-third of the fee goes to financial aid, and there’s an offset based on funding that comes from the state.

“We’re not quite sure what will come back to us, so we’re reviewing everything right now,” Osburn says. “There may be some programs that will be altered. It means that we’ve got to do business very differently than we have done in the past.

“Part of being at UC-Davis is we’re required to do teaching, research and service. What we have now essentially are unfunded mandates to address what we’re doing at this point of time. There’s no money from the state for research or support of service programs.”

Dr. Michael Kotlikoff knows that pressure as dean of Cornell University’s veterinary medical program, one of three contract colleges at the private institution that collect significant partial, ongoing support from the state. Cornell received a cut in State University of New York system funds for Fiscal-Year 2008, which translates to $1.5 million loss for a college that relies on tax dollars for roughly 25 percent of its annual budget.

At the same time, the university internally is dealing financial blows to its programs, reflecting a decrease and endowments and gifts. On Monday, Cornell President David J. Skorton announced he’s taking a 10-percent cut to his paycheck and expects others to make similar sacrifices. A construction pause initially scheduled to end in October will be extended through June 30, 2009, Skorton says, but Kotlikoff explains the veterinary medical college is still going forward with an $80-million building to house post-mortem and laboratory facilities that was previously funded by the state.

Kotlikoff expects to know within a month what the financial impacts will mean for the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“I can tell you that we won’t have an increase in salary next year,” he says. “There’s been a hiring freeze, but we’re still filling very high priority positions.”

Tuition, he adds, is being looked at as an area for revenue enhancement, with fees funneling back into the program. According to university plans, tuition for the 2009-2010 academic year will increase 5.6 percent for in-state veterinary medical students and 6.5 percent of out-of-state students. That translates to $26,500 and $39,500 a year, respectively.

Officials also intend to expand the program’s class size, adding four seats to accommodate 90 students by next year. “We would like to go up to 120 students, but we would need state funds to do that,” Kotlikoff insists.

Seeking new revenue sources also is on the dean’s agenda, and that could include establishing a foreign veterinary medical program in the Middle East, near Saudi Arabia. “We have a medical school there, and we’re now negotiating a very significant veterinary program,” Kotlikoff says.

Veterinary college officials also are investigating plans to build an off-site clinical referral hospital just north of Manhattan.

“These are unprecedented times for us, and we’re looking for new revenue streams,” Kotlikoff says. “The beneficial side is that everybody understands that we need to make strong strategic decisions so we can come out of this leaner and meaner.”

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