Alaska appears eager to increase the number of veterinarians within its borders as it contemplates a possible 2+2 program between the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But the two universities have a long way to go before a deal is solidified.
So far, the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted Nov. 2 to include funding in its 2013 fiscal year budget for a UAF Alaska Veterinary Program Partnership. The $400,000 state appropriation—along with $443,100 from tuition and fees, for a total of $843,100—would go toward teaching as many as 20 veterinary students at the UAF campus for two years before they complete their remaining two years in Colorado.
An aerial view of the West Ridge section of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Courtesy of UAF)
The impetus behind the program came from a 2010 statewide needs assessment and an internal review by the UAF.
John Blake, UAF associate vice chancellor for research and director of the Animal Resources Center, said results showed that most Alaskans interested in a veterinary career leave the state to establish residency and complete their undergraduate degree elsewhere. By the time they obtain a DVM/VMD degree, they have been gone from Alaska for eight or more years, and, thus, the likelihood of them returning is low.
Further, 75 percent of clinical veterinarians with ownership or management responsibilities reported having difficulties in recruiting new veterinarians, according to the needs assessment. Retention appeared to be less of a problem, but was still considered difficult among 44 percent of survey respondents. Almost all veterinary employers who reported difficulties in hiring new associates thought that the UAF program would provide qualified professionals for their organization, and touted the job prospects for newly graduated veterinarians in the state.
Alaska has 261 licensed veterinarians, most of whom are small animal practitioners, out of nearly 700,000 residents.
Vicki Smith, executive director of the Alaska VMA, said there is a shortage in the bush areas of Alaska, including small villages and the Aleutian Islands, but notes it would be difficult to staff veterinarians in these areas because of low caseloads.
"Most locations are remote, and a pilot/veterinarian has difficulty financially (making a living). So yes, there are areas that are underserved but not typically in the cities," Smith said. "Village size, of course, would dictate whether a professional could survive financially."
Still, UAF remains interested in creating a Department of Veterinary Medicine within the College of Natural Science and Mathematics.
The university has already spent a few years recruiting faculty and investing in infrastructure capable of supporting biomedical research and academics for the department, according to the partnership program request in the operating budget.
The $400,000 in state funding will support the hiring of two more faculty members—a veterinary anatomist and a veterinary clinical sciences faculty member—who will take the lead on second- year anesthesiology and surgery courses.
This budget request will be considered by the governor and then the legislature, which will take up the request along with the university's entire budget proposal during the session that runs January through mid-April.
In addition, UAF was to seek Board of Regents approval on Dec. 6 for a special professional tuition rate of $20,000 per year, which is more than the $7,300 in tuition and fees charged to UAF graduate students. The university anticipates that tuition revenue will cover one support staff member, other operating expenses, and additional faculty.
Before anything becomes official, however, the two universities need to talk further. Dr. Lance E. Perryman, dean of Colorado State's veterinary college, said, "We have agreed to be open to a conversation with Alaska. When Alaska is ready to begin discussing an arrangement, CSU will be available to discuss the possibility." He added that no commitments have been made.
A spokesman for CSU, which was approached by UAF this past fall, said it has not investigated whether it has the capacity, faculty, and resources to add more students and run such a program.
Blake also acknowledged that the 2+2 program is only in the discussion phase between the two universities.
"It is far too soon to offer a timeline," he said. "We remain optimistic, but there is quite a lot of work to be done."