Critical Condition

Community members rally to rescue HSU's nursing program from amputation



The members of HSU's Academic Senate task force knew they were in a tough spot. They knew that there's simply no way to eliminate $1.3 million worth of programs from the school's curriculum without causing an uproar, not to mention damaging the university. But in the face of drastic budget cuts, Provost Bob Snyder had saddled them with the task of recommending a way to do it regardless ("Cutters," March 18, 2010). Last Tuesday they settled on a recommendation: Cut nursing. It's expensive, they reasoned. At $867,200 per year, that move alone would yield two-thirds of the necessary savings. Throw in the computer information systems bachelor's program plus the master's degrees in film, theater and dance and you're done. The alternative: cut seven or eight less expensive programs -- popular ones like range resources, music and fisheries.

"We decided that [eliminating] those seven or eight programs would have a bigger impact," Business Administration Chair and task force leader Dr. Saeed Mortazavi said Friday. It's not that the senators felt nursing was unimportant, Mortazavi explained. Quite the opposite. But cuts must be made, and the fewer amputations, they figured, the less bleeding.

However practical such reasoning may sound in the narrow context of college budgeting, in other circles -- health care for one, the nursing department itself for another -- the suggestion was greeted as outrageous bordering on absurd. Nursing students marched in protest. Local hospital administrators and public health officials expressed deep concerns. A support page on Facebook racked up almost 3,000 fans in a week. Even high-level state officials took notice: Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg and Assemblymember/State Senate candidate Noreen Evans questioned faculty and administrators about the nursing program during a visit to the HSU campus last week.

"Closing the nursing program in the midst of a state, national and international nursing shortage is shortsighted," Nursing Professor Pat Farmer told the Journal last week. According to Health Affairs, a nonprofit policy journal, the current nursing shortage is projected to reach 260,000 vacancies nationwide by 2025. That's twice the size of any U.S. nursing shortage since the mid-1960s. The shortage is particularly bad here on the North Coast, according to Humboldt-Del Norte County Medical Society President Hal Grotke. "It's not unusual for people who are hospitalized locally to be transported outside the area simply because there aren't enough nurses," Grotke said. Not only are such transfers expensive, he added, "it separates people from their families when they really need support, and it gets in the way of continuity of care."

The shortage -- both locally and nationally -- has as much to do with increasing demand as short supply. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that health care was one of the only economic sectors to show growth during the recession, and health care reform will likely compound that trend. HSU's nursing program routinely attracts 200 applicants for the 30 available seats each semester, according to Farmer, and graduates are virtually guaranteed a job.

Many end up working at Mad River Community Hospital, which hosted a 12-hour support rally last Friday. Doctors, nurses, patients and students signed form letters and wrote pleas on poster boards. Hospital CEO Doug Shaw made an emotional statement before cutting into a white-frosted cake that said, in green icing, "Help Save Our Nursing Program." In a written statement, Shaw said that with the cresting wave of aging baby boomers, closing any health care program would be a mistake. And while HSU officials have said that should the nursing program be eliminated it could someday be reinstated, Shaw is skeptical. "Once the nursing program is dead," he wrote, "resuscitation will be extremely difficult."

College of the Redwoods also has a nursing program (a fact noted by HSU's Academic Senate). But while it is unquestionably valuable to the community, the associate's degree CR's program yields is not equivalent to HSU's four-year BSN degree. That's an important distinction, according to Humboldt County Health and Human Services Director Phil Crandall. Of the 100 or so nurses employed by the department at any given time, roughly half serve as public health nurses -- a position that requires a BSN degree. The four-year degree is also required for any skilled nursing or psychiatric position. "We've really relied on Humboldt State in developing our workforce," Crandall said.

HSU's nursing program is one of just 13 nationwide whose graduates are permitted to test for holistic nursing certification (a specialty recognized by the American Nursing Association) without any additional training, Farmer said. That focus is what attracted senior nursing students Rande Litten and Jessica Watson. Litten came here from Alaska with every intention of returning home after graduating. "But over the past couple years I've just fallen in love with this community," she told the Journal last week. She's applied to all three local hospitals and hopes to someday have her own nursing practice locally. Watson, who came to Humboldt from Grass Valley, described the nursing program as transformative. "I am a completely different person personally, as well as in my views as a nurse," she said. She too has fallen in love with the area, and said that after completing her education she'd love to return to HSU to teach.

All of which makes a powerful case for keeping nursing. No doubt students in environmental resource engineering, chemistry and other jeopardized programs could mount an equally impassioned defense. And they may yet be forced to do so. Snyder is now conducting his own investigation -- weighing the Academic Senate's rationale, consulting with various state agencies and looking for alternate funding models for the nursing program. He told the Journal Monday afternoon that he and HSU President Rollin Richmond hope to reach a decision by the end of the month. "One way or another we have to cut 10 percent out of our budget," Snyder said quite literally, "and if we don't do it one way we'll have to do it another way."

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