After a long and ugly battle for accreditation, a private university in Pomona on Monday learned it has won initial approval to open the first veterinarian school in Southern California.
Once it enrolls its first students in 2003, Western University of Health Sciences will join UC Davis as one of only two vet schools in California, a state with a growing shortage of veterinarians.
"Southern Californians have great difficulty in finding access to veterinarian medicine," said Shirley D. Johnston, dean of Western University's proposed College of Veterinary Medicine. "Some of our students go out of state and others out of the country to get veterinarian training."
Los Angeles County has 10 veterinarians for every 100,000 animals, a lower ratio than the 18 per 100,000 preferred by the American Veterinary Medical Assn.
Western University had hoped to open the vet school last year. But progress was stalled during a four-year fight with the gatekeeper for the nation's 27 other veterinary schools, the American Veterinary Medical Assn.'s Council on Education.
After being rejected three times, Western took the unusual step last year of suing the council, which is the sole accrediting body of U.S. veterinary schools.
The suit alleged that the council violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and failed to follow its own procedures for approving a new school. Donald G. Simmons, the veterinary association's liaison to the council, said he could not comment on the confidential accreditation process.
But he said the council's initial approval Sunday--which was announced to the school via letter Monday--was not prompted by the lawsuit.
"It wasn't an issue of them suing us," Simmons said. "It was an issue of standards and can the institution meet the standards needed to provide a quality education."
Specifically, the council said the school can now confer professional degrees and will win full accreditation when its entering class is in its fourth year, provided the school follows all its educational plans.
Johnston said part of the hang-up has been that no one on the Council of Education has any experience accrediting a new veterinary school. No new vet schools have opened since 1983.
Also, Johnston said, the council was uncomfortable with Western University's new model for a school--one that does not include building a large teaching hospital.
Instead, the school will send its students to community veterinary practices within an hour's drive of Pomona. So far it has lined up agreements with 39 such practices in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties to give students hands-on experience with dogs, cats and other companion animals as well as livestock.
Furthermore, she said, the school will focus more on practical learning, exposing students to animals earlier in their education, than is traditionally done.
Finally, she said, the school will not kill any animals in its teaching programs, as is common at other veterinary schools.
The nation's vet schools euthanized 9,653 animals in the 1998-99 school year, sometimes after students used them to practice their surgical techniques, according to the annual survey of the Assn. of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.
"We don't consider ourselves animal rightists," Johnston said. "But you don't have to kill children to teach someone how to be a surgeon. I don't think you have to do that to teach veterinary medicine."
Western University's College of Veterinary Medicine plans to begin accepting student applications in June 2002 for an initial class of 70 students. In later years, the school hopes to enroll 100 new students each year. Tuition is expected to be between $25,000 and $30,000 a year for the four-year program.
UC Davis, which has run afoul of accreditation officials because of aging and crowded classrooms and labs, accepts about 122 new veterinary students a year. Nationwide, about 7,000 students compete annually for 2,300 seats in vet schools.
Western University of Health Sciences, founded in 1977, offers graduate degrees in various health sciences, including osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy and nursing. It now enrolls about 1,500 students.