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Published: Monday, 11/16/2009

Owens failed to address shortcomings in nursing

BY MEGHAN
GILBERT-CUNNINGHAM
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The report Owens Community College filed eight months ago to maintain national accreditation for its nursing program failed to show what, if anything, the college did to bring the program up to standards in two deficient areas.

The Owens administration apologized for losing accreditation from the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission and promised to get it back.

"We are sorry," Owens Provost Paul Unger said. "I am sorry we disappointed our students and anyone else."

The commission told Owens it needed more nursing faculty with master's degrees and needed to show how it uses data to strengthen the program when it was put on probationary "accreditation with conditions" in 2007.

The follow-up report, filed in March, was supposed to say what Owens did to correct those weaknesses.

At that time, Owens, which confers associate's degrees in registered nursing, still did not have a majority of faculty with master's degrees in nursing. Nearly all full-time faculty held the degree, but only 20 of the 80 part-time clinical instructors had master's degrees.

Instead of describing what the college did during that two-year period to recruit more master's-prepared instructors, the report noted that some were working on their master's degrees in nursing and, "Due to the economic conditions plaguing the Midwest region, it would be [a] hardship for the part-time faculty to obtain their master's in nursing degree within the next two years."

Mr. Unger said it doesn't appear there was an attempt to get more master's-prepared faculty then, but there is now.

The college is "aggressively advertising" to recruit master's-prepared faculty and is working with the faculty in an extensive review of the program to find where the needs are, Vice Provost Renay Scott said.

The second standard the college failed to meet that led to loss of accreditation was that it did not show that the program used statistics such as passing rates on the national licensure exam, assessment of student learning, and placement of graduates to strengthen the program.

The report filed in March listed the ways the college collects information but not how that information is used, which was a key component in the standard.

"The data was there. We have it and we use it," Ms. Scott said. "What was not fully explained was what was involved and how it was used."

The report apparently was sent with no cover letter and was unsigned. Owens' administrators are investigating who collaborated on the report.

Cynthia Hall, chairman of the college's nursing department, was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 15 while the college investigates her involvement in the loss of accreditation.

Ms. Hall declined last night to address the accreditation issue, citing a notice from the college instructing her not to discuss the matter.

Although it might not be much consolation for the students who graduate before Owens regains its accreditation, the college is changing its processes on accreditation.

As the college has grown - it currently has more than 460 students in its registered-nursing program - Owens has not changed its supervision of the accreditation process for its more than 20 accredited programs.

"We have a decentralized approach to reaccreditation and we don't micromanage through the process," Mr. Unger said.

"This is normally handled at the school level, but we are bringing it up to the provost level."

Owens has taken heat for the time it took to tell staff and students it lost the nursing program accreditation.

The letter to Owens from the commission was dated July 27, and Owens officials said they received it Aug. 5. But faculty and students weren't notified until more than a month later.

The official letter to students dated Sept. 26 came after rumors were buzzing around campus about what it meant. Student meetings were held Oct. 9 on the Perrysburg Township campus and Oct. 12 in Findlay.

The initial response was "a full review of exactly what happened," Mr. Unger said.

"It took a period of time to understand the ramifications of this," he said. "We did not get a message out because we wanted to provide as much information as we could about the ramifications of this."

That sounds like an excuse to Marla Folkerts, 35, of Holland, who next month will be among the first group of Owens nursing students to graduate from an unaccredited program.

She said school officials should have told students right away and better explained what it means to them.

"It all depends on who you talk to and what day you talk to them," Mrs. Folkerts said. "If Owens would be honest and just tell us the facts, that would definitely help. All we get from them is, 'It's not a big deal and you don't need to worry.' Why is everyone else telling us to worry?"

Four nursing students at Owens have sued the college claiming breach of contract and failure to tell students it was in jeopardy of losing its accreditation.

Attorney Charles Boyk has asked Wood County Common Pleas Judge Reeve Kelsey to certify the case as a class action to include all Owens students enrolled between July 1 and Nov. 6.

Other nursing students are in discussions with lawyers about their situations.

Students weren't the only ones unaware that the accreditation was in jeopardy. A review of Mr. Unger's e-mails since Nov. 1, 2006, that mention nursing accreditation shows that there wasn't much communication at the administrative level until the college lost it.

There is one curious exchange between Mr. Unger and the chairman of the nursing program.

In May, before the college was notified it lost accreditation but after the follow-up report was submitted, Ms. Hall wrote Mr. Unger an e-mail asking if accreditation from the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission is essential.

She noted that the college needs to have approval from the Ohio Board of Nursing to offer the program, but not accreditation, which costs $1,875 a year.

"As we are looking at ways to cut costs, I was wanting your opinion regarding not continuing our affiliation with the NLNAC," she wrote.

In his initial response, Mr. Unger asked Ms. Hall whether she had spoken with the faculty about the need for accreditation. He also noted that he needed more information.

Most of the other e-mail communications were sent after accreditation was lost and discussed what it meant and how to get it back.

Mr. Unger did note that it's not uncommon for an accrediting agency to point out areas that need to be improved. He said it is more common than getting a perfect report, and the first letter about the conditions was not derogatory or negative enough to raise alarm.

Usually, the issues are addressed in the follow-up report and things proceed, he said.

Owens did not appeal the commission's decision because the commission's executives told the college it would not be reversed, Mr. Unger said.

Current students graduating from the unaccredited program can expect some challenges, depending on their plans.

Because Owens maintains full approval for its registered nursing program through the Ohio Board of Nursing, students still can take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses.

Students have to pass the exam to practice nursing in Ohio. If they do, Owens graduates can work for ProMedica Health System's hospitals but not Mercy's ProMedica requires nurses to be licensed in the state of Ohio and trained in a program approved by the Ohio Board of Nursing, but it does not specify that they graduate from an accredited program.

Mercy, however, requires its employees to have graduated from an accredited nursing program, according to a statement released to The Blade.

"When nursing opportunities are available, one of the criteria within our current hiring practices is to hire graduates from an accredited program," the statement read.

Owens nursing graduates who want to pursue a bachelor's degree still can at area institutions.

Lourdes College, which is where many of Owens' nursing graduates go, will provisionally admit students to its program.

The students will be required to take a "bridge course" and get a grade of B- or better to receive full admission.

Mercy College of Northwest Ohio requires that the students have associate's degrees from an accredited institution, not necessarily an accredited nursing program, said Anne Loochtan, vice president of academic affairs for the college.

Because Owens as an institution maintains its regional accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission, the loss of the program-specific accreditation does not affect Owens graduates' ability to apply, she said.

The University of Toledo now will require Owens students to submit a portfolio as part of the application to join its program.

"We really need to do our best to make sure, as best we can anyhow, to have students with a high degree of success," said Timothy Gaspar, dean of UT's nursing college.

At first, the university thought that admitting students from a nonaccredited program would violate its admissions policies and jeopardize its own accreditation. But the faculty got together this month and worked out this mechanism to include a portfolio-review process for graduates of nonaccredited programs.

Knowing she will be able to continue her education makes Ashley Leonard, 21, of Toledo, less concerned that her program lost accreditation before she graduates in May. "When I first found out, I was frustrated and confused and not sure what that meant to me," she said.

"There were so many people being negative, but I was proactive and made phone calls to hospitals and schools."

Ms. Leonard said she feels like she's getting the same education as the students who graduated last year from an accredited school and hopes that the negativity surrounding the situation doesn't ruin Owens' reputation.

The Owens Faculty Association's executive board said the provost needs to take responsibility for what happened.

They have called for Mr. Unger's resignation because, as the chief academic officer, he is responsible for the overall administration of academic programs.

"It's time for some academic leadership change," said Dave Matheny, president of the faculty association.

They also accuse him of misrepresenting his role in and knowledge of the situation, switching from saying that it's not that important to that he's not familiar with nursing accreditation.

"From the start, the college's response has been incompetent, evasive, slow, and patronizing," the executive board wrote in a letter to Owens President Christa Adams.

"The lies of omission are staggering and embarrassing to the institution as a whole."

Mr. Unger responded that he does take responsibility for what happened, but he will not tender his resignation. "I take responsibility. I am the chief academic officer. I am responsible."

Mr. Unger said the loss of accreditation has been taken with "the utmost seriousness."

"We're working as quickly as humanly possible to get this back."

Contact Meghan

Gilbert-Cunningham at:

mcunningham@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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