Western University of Health Sciences has earned three years of full accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association's Council on Education (AVMA-COE), the standard for new programs.
Dean Phillip Nelson, DVM, PhD, could not immediately be reached. In a news release put out by the college, he states: "Every member of the CVM family should be justifiably proud of the pioneering efforts of the faculty and staff in establishing a new model that has proven, by all outcome measures used to evaluate any veterinary college, to produce competent, practice-ready DVM graduates.
"It is never easy blazing new trails, and creating new models while assuring that quality standards continue to be met. The decision by the COE validates this accomplishment," he adds.
The COE, which met in Schaumburg, Ill., earlier this week, has not yet publicly confirmed its decision on Western U or its ruling on accreditation for Mexico City's Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico. (Update: The AVMA-COE granted full accreditation to UNAM in March 2011.)
The new model Nelson speaks of is one that focuses on problem-based learning and clinical education that involves rotations at private practices rather than at a traditional teaching hospital. It's a style of instruction that has sparked reproach from some veterinarians, particularly academicians. They say that problem-based learning leaves mediocre students behind. What's more, the 300-plus sites contracted by Western U to supply third- and fourth-year students with their clinical acumen are virtually impossible to monitor and evaluate, critics contend.
Dr. Shirley Johnston, former Western U dean and a founder of the program explains the criticism this way:
"There's resistance to change, fear of the unknown and fear of failure," she says. "Among the academics, there is always a motivation to sustain their own programs. If our model was shown to be effective, there may be some fear about not being able to continue funding for an old model."
That "old model" is in place at the nation's other 27 veterinary medical institutions, where clinical education is centered on rotations in university teaching hospitals. With the nation's economy in turmoil, many have taken financial blows as state legislatures throttle back on higher education funds and pet owners cut their discretionary spending.
Yet hard economic times coupled with the COE's nod might not be enough to ease doubts about the legitimacy of Western U's program, Johnston acknowledges.
"We have had probably 100 years experience with a veterinary teaching hospital model," Johnston says. "So many people believe that the veterinary education in the U.S. is probably the best in the world. The challenge becomes why radically change what's worked so well."
It's a challenge that Western U officials took on in 1998, when the program first emerged, and embarked on the slow and rocky road to admitting its first class.
In 2001, college officials sued the AVMA, alleging that the COE was unjustly standing in the way of the accreditation process. About a month prior to settling the antitrust lawsuit, the program was extended a letter of reasonable assurance, the COE's first step in accrediting new programs.
Two years later, the college accepted its inaugural class, after receiving provisional accreditation. It is the second veterinary medical program in California, next to the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which opened in the 1940s.
"I've always thought that it should be a model that we could turn to," Johnston says of Western U's program. "In these horrible economic times, I'm just more and more convinced that this is a good model. I hope that others see that as well."