Government review of veterinary accreditation nears

Deadline to submit comments to review panel is today

September 22, 2014 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Some leaders within the veterinary profession are lobbying the federal government to insist on major changes within the Council on Education (COE), a volunteer body of the American Veterinary Medical Association that acts as nation’s sole evaluator of U.S. veterinary medical education.

Veterinarians across the country are being encouraged to share their thoughts as the federal government seeks feedback ahead of its review of the COE in December.

That comment period ends today. 

“A debate of major national importance is taking place regarding the credibility of the entire veterinary school accreditation process and the quality of veterinary education overall,” said the New York State Veterinary Medical Society (NYSVMS) in an online statement.

That statement reflects an ongoing and complex debate about whether accreditation standards have been relaxed to make way for more veterinary medical colleges, particularly by allowing new schools to forgo the expense of building veterinary teaching hospitals and instead rotate students through private practice for clinical and surgical training.

Critics also object to the AVMA’s accreditation of foreign veterinary programs, an initiative driven by the AVMA's leadership. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) authorized the COE to evaluate domestic veterinary education in the 1950s, but does not oversee its work abroad. While supporters of foreign accreditation say such efforts elevate veterinary education globally, detractors insist that's a moot point considering that most programs earning U.S. accreditation are elite institutions already recognized by several European accrediting bodies.

AVMA leaders proudly assert that the association maintains the world's "gold standard" in veterinary accreditation. But what's truly driving schools to seek U.S. accreditation, critics contend, is an ability to attract American students and their tuition dollars, contributing to the fact that more graduates than ever are burdened with six-figure student loan debt.

Whether the AVMA has too much authority and political influence over the COE is another ongoing battle, giving rise to heated debates in the AVMA House of Delegates, on message boards of the Veterinary Information Network and in publications such as the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Such complaints have been expressed in Washington before the USDE’s National Advisory Committee for Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), a panel charged with advising the Secretary of Education on higher-education accreditors.

In December 2012, NACIQI ordered the evaluating body to become more transparent, consistent and to create firewalls against conflicts of interest. The directives were handed down after a dozen or more critics lobbied NACIQI to force change.

NACIQI again will meet with the AVMA and COE on Dec. 11, to review whether its directives have been met. The panel is expected to take into account the feedback submitted from veterinarians.

In a statement to stakeholders, AVMA CEO Dr. Ron DeHaven said concerns about the COE are being propelled by "a fundamental lack of understanding of the higher education accreditation process."

“Those involved in this effort to discredit the COE fail to understand that accreditation has a singular purpose, which is quality assurance,” he said. “… We stand firmly behind the quality and integrity of the program as it administered by the AVMA COE.” 

That the AVMA — not the COE — responded to criticisms exemplifies the fact that the evaluating body lacks the autonomy required of an accrediting agency, said Dr. Eric Bregman, a practice owner and past president of NYSVMS.

“It took decades for this profession to become one of the most respected in the country,” he said. “I have great concern that that is going to change if we don’t start making sure that universities adhere to the standards of accreditation.” 

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