In HSU's budget emergency room, administrators jolt the nursing program back to life



"We did it!" That was the message on the "Save the HSU Nursing Program" Facebook page, and it was a sentiment that spread rapidly throughout the department Tuesday morning after President Rollin Richmond announced that nursing had indeed been granted a pardon.

"It's great news, and we're really excited," nursing senior Randee Litten said. "That's pretty much all we've been talking about."

The school's baccalaureate nursing program has drawn widespread support from the local community and beyond since it was recommended for elimination earlier this month by HSU's Academic Senate ("Critical Condition," Apr. 15). The faculty government organization had been tasked with finding a way to save $1.3 million in curriculum costs. In making its recommendation, the Senate cited the nursing program's hefty price tag ($867,200 per year) as well as nagging difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified faculty. Conversely, given the nationwide nursing shortage, community members, public officials and health care professionals expressed concern and even outrage at the prospect of eliminating the department.

Now those same people are rejoicing. "We think the nursing program is a wise investment, both in the health and economic welfare of the North Coast," said Phil Crandall, director of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services. "We appreciate HSU's decision to maintain this valuable service."

The program elimination process was undertaken following $560 million in state funding cuts to the CSU system, including $12 million from HSU's general fund. In a phone conversation Tuesday morning, HSU Provost Robert Snyder, who largely guided this process and whose recommendations were followed to the letter by President Richmond, said he appreciated the support voiced by the community but that it was not the deciding factor. "What was key," Snyder said, "were the community partners, and [those] at the state level -- people coming forward saying we could work cooperatively on how to resolve the problems facing nursing."

The program did not emerge unscathed. As part of a restructuring plan, the number of students admitted per year will be reduced from 60 to 40. And Snyder said that in order for the program to prove viable, it must secure more grant funding and improve its partnerships with state and local health care agencies. It also needs to collaborate better with College of the Redwoods, he said. The community college offers an associate's degree in nursing (ADN), but many students continue on to HSU for their bachelor's (BSN), which is a requirement for many health care positions. The two schools' curricula should be better coordinated, Snyder said.

The department's faculty troubles may prove more difficult to resolve. Of the six tenure-line faculty hired in recent years, only two remain. Meanwhile, three faculty members are near retirement (two won't continue past this year), and just one tenured faculty member has the required doctorate degree. (Two tenure-track faculty members are pursuing their Ph.Ds but haven't finished.) In an earlier interview, nursing faculty member Pat Farmer said these challenges don't necessarily reflect poorly on the department. "The turnover is reflective of a well-acknowledged national shortage of qualified nursing faculty," Farmer said. This stems not only from the broader nursing shortage but from simple economics, she added. "Pay in the university system is only about two-thirds of [what's offered in] the private sector."

In his recommendation to President Richmond, Snyder said that were it not for the public outcry along with "a commitment on behalf of the department, College of the Redwoods, community health-care partners and state agencies to work together," he would have agreed with the Academic Senate and suggested axing the department. As it is, the program's future remains provisional. Snyder said that if the department cannot quickly develop a plan with specific goals and benchmarks, he'll recommend suspending admissions for spring semester. "They need to get on this," he warned.

Not everyone was celebrating Tuesday: Nursing's salvation spells doom for other departments. Admission will be suspended in both the Computer Information Systems and Computer Science programs, pending review. (In his communique to Richmond, Snyder wrote, "I am not convinced that either a CIS or CS major is viable at Humboldt.") A review also will be conducted in the Theatre, Film and Dance Department, which has struggled to meet minimum enrollment levels. The broad spectrum of specialties offered in that program -- set design, lighting, costume, makeup, acting, directing -- creates a large number of classes with few students in each one. "For a very expensive program, this is a problem," Snyder said.

The cumulative savings from these decisions, along with the earlier elimination of the Industrial Technology program, add up to about $600,000 of the targeted $1.3 million. Snyder is hopeful that both nursing and theatre arts will become more cost-effective after review.

Yet more cuts may be required, but because the semester is nearing its conclusion, Snyder elected not to seek further action from the Academic Senate until next academic year, by which time major state budget decisions likely will have been made.

In his campus-wide letter, President Richmond expressed anger, saying that by slashing education funding Gov. Schwarzenegger and legislators from both parties "have demonstrated a terrible lack of foresight." But he also suggested that lessons have been learned at HSU. "Going forward," he wrote, "we will need to be better about continuously reviewing and making adjustments to our academic offerings."

That's down the road. For now, it's party time. "I'm very happy right now," said Beth Weissbart, the third-semester nursing student who maintained the Facebook page. "Everyone's ecstatic." Online, she thanked everyone who supported the nursing program, saying, "We all should be proud to be a part of such an amazing community!"

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