Budding veterinary programs battle on

Plans renewed for University of Arizona, Texas Tech veterinary colleges

Published: May 19, 2017
By Jennifer Fiala

Artistic rendering of a UA-owned facility
VIN News Service screen shot
This artistic rendering shows University of Arizona's Marley Foundation Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Program in Oro Valley. Plans are under way to retrofit the UA-owned facility to house classrooms, laboratory space and veterinary operating suites.

The University of Arizona isn't giving up, and some lawmakers aim the same for Texas Tech.

Plans to offer veterinary education at both institutions, while unrelated to one another, each face a variety of setbacks but now appear to be resuscitated, either by old-fashioned resolve or a potential boost in finances.

UA officials are in an uphill battle to get the Council on Education, the sole accreditor of veterinary education in the United States, to make a first step toward approving its plans to open the nation's 31st veterinary school. Officials stated last month that after being rejected by the COE in August and later losing its appeal of that decision, UA will revise its plans and try again.

"Accreditation should be viewed as a process, not an obstacle, and pursuing accreditation is central to our goal of providing a superior program of the highest quality," Provost Andrew Comrie said. "We intend to work with the COE to meet or exceed all of its standards and become a program worthy of Arizona and the University of Arizona."

The earliest UA can resubmit its application to the COE is June 14. In the meantime, UA has hired Mark Cushing, a lawyer and consultant in the veterinary landscape known for steering emerging veterinary programs through what Comrie characterizes as a "rigorous" accreditation process.

He's also a vocal counter to concerns that the recent expansion in veterinary academia aggravates ongoing problems in the profession: students graduate with enormous educational debt, often twice or three times their starting salaries; the prospect of more graduates compounds a looming oversupply of veterinarians, at least in some regions; and the pool of applicants to veterinary academia is more shallow than ever, striking fears that programs soon may find it tough to fill seats with qualified applicants.

Reached by email, Cushing said he couldn't immediately discuss the next stage of UA's plans but noted that UA's situation is "much different" than the one at Texas Tech. He didn't expand.

Still wrangling for funds, Texas Tech is earlier in the development process than UA and faces a formidable adversary in the Texas A&M University System. Texas A&M, which operates the state's only veterinary school, based in College Station, is said to carry a great deal of influence among the state officials, many of whom are alumni.

Texas A&M has lobbied heavily against Texas Tech's bid to open the state's second veterinary program in Amarillo, even though 500-plus miles span between the two institutions. The resistance, insiders say, is rooted in the prospect of potentially having to compete for state support as well as prospective students. Deterred by the prospect of battling for funds from a Legislature said to be reining in spending, the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents voted in February to drop its request for a $17 million down payment for a new school of veterinary medicine in Amarillo, anticipated to eventually cost between $80 million and $90 million. The board is rumored to have refocused its efforts on developing a dental program.

But in a surprising twist, Texas representatives breathed new life last month into Tech's plans by proposing to give nearly $6 million over two years to get the program started. The money for Texas Tech appears as an item in the House's state budget proposal. However, the amount is $11 million less than the institution's original request. It's unclear whether that amount is sufficient to revive the plan.

Talks of developing a veterinary school at Texas Tech have been in the works for decades but gained steam two years ago with initial plans to admit a first class by 2018 or 2019. Texas Tech needs a veterinary school, proponents say, because there's a lack of large animal veterinarians in western regions of the state. Last September, the Amarillo Economic Development Corp. committed $15 million to jumpstart the project, contingent on the school opening by Sept. 1, 2018, and providing at least $50 million in payroll and benefits during a five-year period, beginning in 2022.

Should Texas Tech receive enough funding to open a veterinary school, accreditation is not guaranteed and often is a lengthy process. Asked whether the 2018 opening date deadline is flexible, Barry Albrecht, the development corporation's president and COE, was emphatic.

"Absolutely," he said.

Asked to characterize the need for large animal practitioners in West Texas, Albrecht said he hears about the demand for veterinarians "all the time" from "different sectors of our community, especially the agriculture side." He also wants to see Texas Tech answer the need for education from aspiring veterinarians, referencing a longstanding but increasingly controversial notion that there is a glut of students in the United States who can't get into veterinary school because there are too few programs.

"Qualified individuals just can't get enrolled because there aren't enough spots. We are just responding from a market opportunity for vet school education and it fits perfectly here," Albrecht said. "We're not looking for a handout; this community is all in. It's top priority for the Panhandle and the state."

He added: "It's challenging for me to understand how we could not support a vet school that's going to provide medical training to our citizens and global students. This is not a community of Amarillo issue. It's the state of Texas. It's a market issue. Vet schools around the country have been turning away students because they're full. The Texas Legislature has a strong reputation in support of education, and we believe we can provide the best global-education opportunities for everyone."

The need — both for rural veterinary care and education — is overstated and already being addressed, countered Dr. Eleanor Greene, dean of Texas A&M's veterinary college.

Speaking to lawmakers last month, Greene said that Texas A&M already is expanding veterinary education, research and undergraduate outreach to the system's campuses in rural areas of the state, including West Texas A&M. In an open letter published in August, she addressed Texas Tech's aim to beef up numbers of rural veterinarians by questioning whether they're truly needed.

"Of the 6,660 veterinarians in Texas, only 180 are livestock veterinarians working in rural areas," she wrote. "As they move toward retirement, how do we meet the livestock industry's needs?"

Green argued that the problem is one of maldistribution, not numbers. "We don't have a shortage of veterinary colleges. We have a shortage of graduates who want to work in the rural areas," she wrote. "Our program at (West Texas A&M) will address that. It is better to focus on how to recruit and incentivize students to practice in rural areas than to saddle taxpayers with the costly overhead of a second veterinary college."

It's uncertain whether the House's near-$6 million allocation to Texas Tech will survive budget negotiations given that the Senate's spending plan does not include the line item. Drafts from both chambers are in the hands of conferees — five members of the House and five members of the Senate — charged with settling differences between the two versions before it's submitted for a final vote by the Legislature. The budget deadline is May 29. If lawmakers fail to meet that deadline, they'll likely reconvene for special sessions during the summer.

If the startup funds for Texas Tech remain intact, it's unclear how the board of regents will proceed. The Tech System did not respond to a request for comment.

VIN News reached out to Dr. Guy Loneragan, a veterinary epidemiologist and professor at Texas Tech who's been vocal about the need to offer veterinary education. Loneragan did not respond but forwarded the query to Brett Ashworth in communications.

"We have no update to offer at this time, however, I will be sure to reach out to you when we have updated information," Ashworth promised.

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