A quest at the Capitol for a new U.A. veterinary school

PHOENIX — Sen. Steve Pierce (R-Prescott) stood up on the Senate floor last week and attempted to get $4.2 million for the University of Arizona to start a veterinary program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Shortly after he finished talking, the nay votes overwhelmed the yeas, and the amendment was voted down.

State Rep. Ethan Orr
State Rep. Ethan Orr

In his office, Rep. Ethan Orr (R-Tucson) who has his two University of Arizona diplomas hanging behind his desk, remains on a mission. Early in the week Orr, a former associate professor at the university, thought he could get the funding from the House, despite the lack of success of veterinary appropriations in the Senate. But later this week, the House only agreed to give the university $3.5 million for Cooperative Extension support. Without the support of the House and Senate, Orr will have to come up with some other way to squeeze the money he wants to create the University of Arizona’s first veterinary school and surgical program — before the budget is finalized.

But the legislative appropriations game is only part of a bigger conversation surrounding the proposed veterinary program — one between two veterinarians, Dr. Shane Burgess, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Dr. Wayne Anderson, of the Arrow Service Groups of Animal Hospitals, a co-op of veterinary hospitals in the Phoenix area.

Anderson says he has letters from over 30 private practices in the state, all of which state that they don’t support a veterinary school program for the university. But if you talk to Burgess (or Orr, or any other supporter of the program) they’ll tell you that the University of Arizona, as a land-grant university, has a responsibility to its citizens to create this program.

“We take this very seriously in my college; our job is to do whatever we can to benefit the state,” Burgess said. “My job is to do whatever I can to improve the state’s economy by improving the number of jobs, by improving the incomes of the private businesses, and by making our state a better place to live for everybody.” In Burgess’ view, that means giving Arizona students a better opportunity to become veterinarians — but with rising costs in tuition throughout the country, it also means creating a program that would minimize costs.

Currently, a program called the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education allows for Arizona students to pay in-state tuition to out of state schools in return of the students spending at least four years working in Arizona after they graduate.

“Even with that, a lot of veterinarians I know still leave with like a hundred grand in debt after veterinary school,” said Chris Cromwell said, a junior who is a veterinary sciences student at the University of Arizona. “Really, there in no cheap option for veterinary students in general, but especially veterinary students in Arizona.” 

Most of the veterinary schools in the country are state schools and typically admit more in-state students than out of state students, which doesn’t leave much room for Arizona students like Cromwell.

To help Arizona students, Burgess has two ideas. One is to streamline the program, providing six different entry points into the program. The other is to use the resources that the university already has, including a distributive education model that would place students in clinics throughout the state.

The streamlined program is rigorous and utilizes calendar years instead of academic years, forcing students to continue working through the summer. The earliest entry point is for high school students who have completed the prerequisite college-level English, chemistry, biology and math classes. While there will be some eligible for this program straight out of high school, the majority of students will have to spend at least two semesters taking the prerequisites before they can enter the program. Others will take more traditional routes into the program using the other entry points.

For some, like Dr. Richard Schorr, owner of the University Pet Clinic in Tucson, that’s a problem. Schorr said he values the current system where students get more of a liberal arts education before focusing and honing in on their technical career.

“There has to be some liberal arts education first of all to teach them how to think,” he said, adding that being a veterinarian involves more than just technical work.

Burgess’ other idea, the distributive education model, has been in effect in a few schools across the country, including a veterinary school at the University of Calgary and Western University of Health Sciences. Burgess has arranged for several veterinarians, mostly in southern Arizona, to take part in his program.

In order to get the clinics up to the standards for the American Veterinary Medical Association accreditation (the accreditation that makes or breaks a veterinary school) Burgess plans to invest money updating facilities. He also plans to compensate veterinarians who take part in the program with salaries equal to those of part-time professors.

Anderson said he doesn’t think that you can reduce the cost of education while maintaining the current standards. “You can’t have an increased amount of knowledge and decrease the time because of money. You have to kind of pick your poison,” he said.

In particular, he said, he isn’t impressed with the distributive-education model. He said that often with students who graduate from that type of program, there is a lack of consistency in training. “I think there has to be concern about being educated and having consistency when people are moving around,” Anderson said.

Another area where there is little consensus, not just between Anderson and Burgess, but also in the veterinary community, is whether there is an actual shortage of veterinarians.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in its 2014 Occupational Outlook Handbook said that there is a 12 percent growth rate for veterinarians in the country. However with a higher number of graduates from veterinary schools, competition for jobs is exspected to increase. That is consistent with the fears of Anderson, who thinks that having a U.A .veterinary program when Midwestern, a private veterinary school in Glendale, is already starting its first class in the fall will flood the market.

Burgess said that isn’t a concern. He said that veterinary graduates are well under the national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in 2012, with only 2.1 percent unemployed. But one of the ways that he is trying to avoid flooding the market, he said, is in the type of student that he plans on accepting.

Instead of following the standard way of admitting students, Burgess said a board of practitioners will admit students based on its assessment of what the state needs.

“We’re going to ask rural practitioners, ‘you select the individuals that you think, for whatever reason you believe are telling you the truth,’” Burgess said. “Not just rural practitioners; it might be biomedical people; it might be federal agency people. It’ll be whoever we need and the proportions will change over time.”

Burgess’ plans have the backing of the agricultural community, the AVMA, the university and some legislators, which could be more than enough to get his program off of the ground.

“I think the pushback comes from traditionalists that say veterinary school should be hard — and it should, but it can also be streamlined,” Orr said. There are people that are there to go to college and explore, there are people that are there that say ‘this is exactly what I want to do and I want to do it as quickly as possible’ and so we should give them the skills.”

Back in the Legislature, the budget battle continues. In the whirlwind of amendments and counter-proposals, it’s easy to lose the veterinary school in the mix. But Orr insists that the state simply needs a  veterinary school, he insists.

“It furthers the mission of the university of Arizona which, as a land grant institution, is a resource for the entire state. It means that we’ll be able to support our rural and agricultural economy,” Orr said.

Of course, that is, if he can get the money.


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