BENNINGTON -- The National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission voted to deny the continued accreditation for the nursing programs at Southern Vermont College beyond this spring.
The college is prepared to appeal the decision that President Karen Gross said was based on erroneous information and a flawed procedure. The college also plans to file a law suit in U.S. District Court claiming the NLNAC did not afford the college common law due process and did not follow its own accreditation procedures.
"If accreditors do not look at the documents that exist, or do not ask the individuals in charge of a program to explain issues, or do not correct errors, then what you have throughout the process is something that's deeply flawed," Gross said. "And so the appeal grants us, for the very first time, an opportunity to be heard with respect to what's happened and for the true facts to come out, completely."
The college's associate's degree for nursing (ADN) and bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN) programs have been on probation the past two years and an NLNAC visiting team last fall determined it had not come into compliance for the accreditation process.
In its report, the visiting team raised concerns regarding student outcomes, the new ADN curriculum implemented last fall and concerns about measuring the outcomes of the new curriculum. The report also raised issue with the qualifications of instructors in the BSN program, among other concerns.
The loss of accreditation would be significant to the flagship program at SVC -- which accounts for nearly one-third of the student body at the private liberal arts college -- however, Gross said nursing education at SVC is not in jeopardy. Both programs will remain accredited by the NLNAC through the appeals process and the programs are also accredited by the Vermont State Board of Nursing, which allows students to sit for the national nursing licensing exam. The harm of losing NLNAC accreditation -- which is a voluntary accreditation -- is that some employers, including the federal government, require candidates to come from an independently accredited program.
Gross said she remains confident the nursing program will not lose its accreditation, but in the case it does, students would be taken care of.
"What we have said to our students is if for some reason we were in a position not to get the NLNAC to resolve this issue, we will find a way for them to get an accredited degree, including, if necessary, through another institution with whom we would partner," Gross said. "We are working to protect our students in all ways possible. So we are not going to leave them dangling out there unprotected. That won't happen."
NLNAC has an appeal process in which appeals are heard by a panel of seven people who have not had any involvement in the process to date. SVC officials will have an opportunity to present their arguments through the process, which Gross said will be the first time the college will have that opportunity.
One way in which the NLNAC did not follow its own accreditation procedure, Gross said, was not affording the college an opportunity to respond to findings during the team visit in the fall and again during a hearing in January.
Gross said the college identified 40 factual errors in the site visitor's draft report, however only six were corrected for the final report. Specific examples of errors Gross said were not corrected included comments in the report that individual conferences were held with nursing faculty members, however the members of the faculty specifically named in the report said they never took part in such conferences. The college was not given an explanation of why some factual errors it identified were rejected.
"In the site visit back in October of 2012, the college wanted to have a substantive opportunity to understand what the site visitors' concerns were, and then an opportunity to respond to what those were to demonstrate to the site visitors that, in fact, the college did comply. They were not provided with that opportunity," said Jeffrey Nolan, an attorney representing SVC with the firm Dinse, Knapp, McAndrew.
"What we will be able to address in an appeal is all of the cumulative errors of failures to provide a meaningful opportunity to speak, to address the concerns ... that really was not provided," Nolan said.
In addition to correcting perceived mistakes, the college will also request a follow-up visit so SVC's programs may demonstrate compliance with the standards.
"The argument on appeal will be, again, that we do comply with the standards and just need a more fair opportunity to demonstrate that," Nolan said.
The college will file its appeal this month, and Nolan expects a decision to be made by the review panel in late summer to early fall.
Before then, a law suit against the NLNAC will also be filed seeking an interim ruling to allow SVC's programs to remain accredited, a declaration of due process, and damages if any are incurred.
The extent of damages caused by the NLNAC decision, and the process leading to the decision, will not be known for some time as it is too early to determine what enrollment trends will look like for the fall. Gross did say there was a higher rate of students leaving SVC this winter than in previous years, after it was known the visiting team planned to recommend for the Commission not to re-accredit the programs.
Even as the programs go through adversity, Gross said plans remain intact to evolve SVC's nursing programs, which includes a plan to phase out its two-year nursing degree and focus on the bachelor's degree program and a "completer program" to allow people with an associate's degree to earn a bachelor's degree. The last class to complete the ADN program will be in the spring of 2014.
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