Board to discuss future of Midway's pharmacy school in Paintsville

gkocher1@herald-leader.comMay 8, 2012 

Midway College's goal to put a pharmacy school in Eastern Kentucky is in question.

The University of Charleston, the private West Virginia school that explored the possibility of operating a pharmacy school in the Midway building in Paintsville, announced in late April that "it is not in the best interests ... to proceed at this time."

And a page on the Midway College Web site says: "The Midway College of Pharmacy is no longer seeking accreditation. At this time applications are no longer being accepted."

The page directs students who had previously applied to the pharmacy school to complete a reimbursement form for a refund of application fees and deposits.

Asked whether or not the program was dead, Midway College spokeswoman Ellen Gregory wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that issues related to the Paintsville campus will be discussed Thursday at the next board of trustees meeting.

In an April 4 letter to the Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education, Sarah Laws, accreditation liaison for Midway College, said the Woodford County school "has initiated conversations with the University of Kentucky concerning their possible interest in the Paintsville pharmacy school."

Midway and UK officials met to discuss the issue, but Tom Harris, a spokesman for UK, said Tuesday that "there was no follow-up after that. There are no plans for UK Pharmacy involvement in that program."

Midway College announced in January 2010 that would expand into Eastern Kentucky by establishing a pharmacy school in Johnson County. It was to be the first non-profit private pharmacy school in Kentucky. (The only pharmacy schools in the state are operated by the University of Kentucky and Sullivan University.)

Midway College said its research showed there was a shortage of pharmacists across the country. Nevertheless, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, the Chicago-based organization that accredits pharmacy programs, "was not looking favorably" upon the Midway application for a new program, said University of Charleston President Edwin Welch. He said he did not know specific reasons, and the accreditation council did not return a phone call on Tuesday.

Travis Powell, general counsel for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said in e-mail that Midway "never provided an official reason as to why the institution abandoned the pharmacy school project in Paintsville. Powell said it is the "CPE's understanding that the primary issues were related to the pharmacy school leadership."

A major donor to the pharmacy program had also indicated an intention to revoke the remaining $9 million of a $13 million pledge, Powell said.

In addition, Welch said it is becoming more difficult to start new pharmacy schools. As more pharmacy programs are launched, ACPE "has become a little more rigorous in their expectations in making certain that schools have a good chance of being successful."

In any case, on Dec. 22, then-Midway College President William Drake Jr. voluntarily withdrew the application to pursue accreditation of a pharmacy program. The withdrawal is noted in the Jan. 18-22 minutes of the ACPE board of directors available online. Drake resigned as Midway College president in March.

By this time, Midway had contractual relationships with faculty and students for the new program, Welch said. So in an effort to keep faith with those people, Midway sought to have the University of Charleston open a branch of its pharmacy program in Paintsville. The UC program started in 2004 and had a spring enrollment of 290 students.

"This was a way of keeping the dream of the people in Paintsville alive," Welch said. "They wanted to make the situation as good as they could for the people who were there."

So in early January, Midway College and the UC officials signed a letter of intent to house the UC pharmacy program in Midway's site in Paintsville. Had the program gone forward, Midway would have either leased or sold a building to UC, Welch said.

"Because the ACPE was not looking favorably on Midway, it was not at all an option for us to work with Midway in developing a school. The only way we could do something in Paintsville is if it was entirely our program," Welch said. "Because we are the accredited school and we would be opening a branch of the accredited school there. So it was not a partnership between the two schools; it was whether or not we wanted a branch there on our own. Once they (Midway) withdrew their application at the end of December, they were totally out of the picture."

UC officials went through a 60-day period of "due diligence" to answer a series of questions about whether expanding to Paintsville was a good idea or not.

UC believed it could offer a quality program in Paintsville, through distance learning and hiring some faculty there, Welch said. UC faculty members were probably split on whether to expand to Paintsville, he said.

"If you took a vote, they'd probably say 'Let's focus our attention on the program we have in Charleston, rather than think of expanding,'" Welch said.

"The third question was whether this was a good business decision for us," Welch said. "Finally we decided, looking at all those issues, that we shouldn't do it."

The forecast for student demand for the program "gave us pause," Welch said. Midway was more optimistic than UC officials about the number of students who would want to enroll in a Paintsville pharmacy program.

"The odds are your numbers would fall off later because there are more pharmacy schools than there were before, and they are graduating more students," Welch said. "So the additional number of pharmacy schools made competition for faculty, administrators and students tough. And as those schools graduate more pharmacists, that means the job market has gotten tighter, and that's just going to continue because there are schools that have yet to graduate their first students in the pipeline."

UC's "due diligence" period expired in late February, but the school continued to talk with interested parties and run projections as it assessed the costs and benefits of the potential program.

But on April 27, UC's board of trustees announced it had decided not to open a branch of its pharmacy school in Paintsville.

Gregory, the Midway College spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that "our board of trustees will continue discussing the future direction of the Paintsville campus and our presence in the Paintsville area at their next board meeting. Discussions are ongoing with the city of Paintsville as it relates to this matter."

Paintsville Mayor Bob Porter could not be reached Tuedsday for comment.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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