UNC nursing school aims for top of its class

Kathy LaSala is worried. The director of the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Nursing sees the shortage of nurses only getting worse in the decade ahead.

“Unless some major changes take place, I don’t know if we can fill the need in Colorado for nurses,” she says.

Not that she’s waiting for a magic bullet.

LaSala and the management team at UNC have been exploring every possible way to recruit and train the nurses of tomorrow, from expanded partnerships with health care providers to adding new degree programs to offering courses to upgrade the skills of working nurses.

The effort has earned UNC’s School of Nursing a reputation for responsiveness and innovative thinking.

The school’s focus on results mirrors UNC’s overall strategy.

Rather than pursuing a massive 5- to 10-year strategic plan, UNC sets objectives and timelines for each of its many parts, says Charles Leonhardt, vice president, university relations.

This alternative to the typical strategic plan, which offers the flexibility to adapt rapidly to difficult times, emerged from months of “where do we want to go?” discussions at the highest levels of the university in 2009.

“We take a nontraditional approach to planning,” he says. “Ours is not defined in years. There are timeframes for each of the portions of the plan. It’s a multi-year approach, ongoing and integrated.

“We are in a new environment and we need to be innovative and more self-reliant.”

UNC, like most state universities, suffered from severe revenue shortfalls during the recession. The decision was made to concentrate on the university’s core strengths. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where do we excel? Let’s build on programs where we excel and expand programs that fit tightly in our mission,'” Leonhardt says.

Since then, resources have been primarily committed to four core areas:

• Teaching.

• Health sciences.

• Performing and visual arts.

• Business.

The approach appears to be paying off for UNC.

Like the School of Nursing, UNC’s Health Sciences program is having an impact far beyond the Greeley campus.

Its initiatives are often launched through federal grants and other non-university sources of funding that the school has attracted. Examples:

• The National Science Foundation awarded a grant totaling nearly $350,000 (including university dollars) to support research at UNC’s Sport and Exercise Science department to study movement in amputees fitted with prosthetics, a study aimed at developing better prosthetics design and rehabilitation programs.

• The National Science Foundation awarded $750,000 to the university’s Biological Sciences faculty to recruit, retain and promote the graduation of undergraduate students majoring in the biological sciences.

• The National Institutes of Health funded research on schizophrenia by Associate Professor Mark Thomas to the tune of $349,406.

• The American Cancer Society committed $421,000 over three years to a team of researchers to study strategies for minimizing the side effects of chemotherapy.

• Deanna Meinke, associate professor of Audiology and Speech-Language Sciences, is in the final year of a three-year, $435,161 grant funded by the Office of Naval Research with colleagues at Dartmouth to study the early detection and prevention of noise-induced hearing loss.

The increasing influx of outside dollars to support “core competencies” plays directly into the university’s drive to become less dependent upon increasingly scarce state dollars to fund its developmental aspirations.

While seeking new sources of support, the university also has thoroughly reviewed its financial situation. It scoured its nearly $200 million annual budget to rein in costs; in 2010 and 2011, a total of $6.5 million was trimmed from its budget.

This focus on fiscal accountability bore fruit in two key areas: student recruitment and employee retention. Tuition increases have been kept low (3 percent next year), the university’s financial aid pool has been beefed up, and employees received raises this year for the first time in four years.

To see where the university’s leaders are steering UNC’s curriculum, though, one need only look through the lens of the School of Nursing.

When LaSala became director in 2009, she outlined an aggressive set of objectives she believed would not only add to the school’s national reputation for excellence, but would serve the state of Colorado well. She wanted to add more advanced training components to the school’s curriculum.

She knew she had to attract more teachers, since the demand for spaces in nursing schools nationwide is outstripping the ability of most faculties to handle the load. She wanted to find more health care partners in the region to increase the number of real-world-experience positions for her students. And she wanted her student body to be more integrated into the community in general.

It was a big order. She still wrings her hands about meeting the demand for nurses that the aging population, expanded health coverage and the aging of the current crop of practicing nurses will create. Yet she can cite many achievements in her three years that demonstrate innovative responses to challenging times.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is a good example of the university’s response to the profession’s evolution. Nurses with advanced training known as nurse practitioners are gradually assuming many of the clinical roles once performed only by MDs. In response, in 2010, the school offered its first Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. UNC also created an advanced degree track for family nurse practitioners. The coursework began with a post-master’s DNP in the fall of 2010, the post-baccalaureate DNP was added this year.

Programs like these are “not just a matter of adding degrees. The world has gotten more complicated, and those going into nursing today need to be trained in much broader terms, advancing their knowledge beyond the medical-care level in order to succeed,” LaSala says. “Implementation of the DNP program ensures our competitiveness in nursing education.”

The school is also home to the National Institute for Nursing Education and Scholarship, established in 2008 through a $429,000 federal grant. This program addresses both the nursing faculty shortage and best-practice research in nursing education and underscores the school’s commitment to continue to seek out top educators to train the next generation of nurses.

The school constantly seeks new health care partners, particularly those located in Northern Colorado. It has relationships with 75 agencies, large and small, throughout the region. Partners Poudre Valley Health System and Banner Health not only provide training opportunities, but scholarships, faculty members, endowed fellowships, donated equipment and advisory board members.

LaSala acknowledges she has asked much of UNC to ensure the quality of the School of Nursing’s educational experience.

“The university has learned that we need to be nimble and quick to react to community and educational needs,” she says. “They have been exceptionally supportive of the nursing program since I’ve been there.”

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