College’s plan to phase out nursing program raises concerns

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The State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz will say goodbye to 167 graduating nursing students over the next couple of years, and then, goodbye to its nursing program.

Due to a $6 million deficit under the state's recently-enacted budget, the university will phase out its nursing program by May 2011—when all currently enrolled students complete their course of studies. SUNY New Paltz announced it will also eliminate 70 jobs and delay admission for other education courses at the university.

According to an article in the university's student newspaper, The New Paltz Oracle, President Steven Poskanzer stated the program which is offered only to licensed RNs or transfer students eligible for RN licensure was "expensive" and had low enrollment. Poskanzer also wrote in a campus e-mail that SUNY New Paltz had "difficulty recruiting, retaining, and awarding tenure to fully credentialed nursing faculty."

Still nursing faculty and students are upset with the university's decision to cut the program that has been in place for 30 years—a decision that may limit nurses' opportunities to expand their knowledge in the profession and further complicate the nursing shortage.

"All faculty and students are disappointed and shocked. There is no justification for this," says Eleanor Richards, PhD, RN, associate professor and chair of SUNY New Paltz's nursing department. "Many of the graduates of the master's program are recruited upon graduation to teach at area community colleges and students enroll in our RN to BSN program from seven community colleges in the Hudson Valley."

Richards refers to the nursing students as a nontraditional adult learner population who maintain full- and part-time positions in healthcare organizations and know they need to continuously improve their practice and ultimately patient outcomes.

"Data reported by the Healthcare Association of New York State show that 40% of RNs in the region hold the BSN," Richards says, adding that SUNY New Paltz is a major force to this percentage. “I have no doubt that the rank will drop dramatically and the quality of patient care will significantly decline.”

And while Poskanzer stated the nursing program had low enrollment, Richards, who has been employed at SUNY New Paltz for 12 years, highlights its considerable growth. Enrollments for the university’s BSN program, for example, almost quadrupled between 2003 and 2008. Other institutional data illustrates 432 BSN enrollments for the spring 2009 semester.

Richards says data comparing nursing to other departments at SUNY New Paltz of similar faculty size, enrollments, and generated revenue has not been transparent, but it would seem that nursing is likely to be no more costly.

"It is reasonable to believe that there are more expensive laboratories within the college. Three out of five faculty are on lecturer/instructor lines and carry an academic year credit load of 24 credits," Richards says. "Lower salary and increased workload would account for lower department expense."

The New Paltz Oracle reports Poskanzer said the college will honor all contracts with faculty and staff working in the nursing program. At the present, the nursing department has five full-time faculty members and one new faculty member will start working in the fall. Two adjuncts and one secretary are also employed. The college will transfer a secretary and one professor to another department of the college when the program wraps up.

The program will be funded by reserve money until it concludes.

"The administration has no plans to continue the nursing program and has not assumed a posture of listening to the 130 faculty and staff, students, alumni, healthcare consumers, and nursing organizations who disagree with the closure," says Richards, adding that SUNY New Paltz is the only campus in the state that plans to close their nursing program.