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A University Comes of Age


Beginning something big isn't easy, even in this age of the flashy technology start-up, when support is raised on little more than a direction for the future. Sometimes that goal is met, which is a testament to the massively complex undertaking of creating a university out of nothing more than a dream. When you add the unique challenges of higher education, it becomes even more impressive when the extraordinary potential of a thriving interprofessional health care institution comes to fruition, such as with Marshall B. Ketchum University. With much of the hard work of establishing two brand-new programs on the foundation of a successful college of optometry already contributing to early success, MBKU can celebrate its strong position as it comes of age as a University and looks toward a bright future of student-centered health care education.

New Identity

A crucial part of “coming of age” is developing a strong identity, and this was one of the most complex challenges faced by President Kevin L. Alexander and his administration. “You have to do all the obvious things,” says Dr. Alexander, “like deciding what programs you’re going to have, then creating those programs, then hiring administrators and faculty – folks who are leaders to create visions for each of those programs – and make space for it all. But the hard part is changing the way the institution and the people within the institution think of themselves. For 100-plus years, the entire mission has been focused on optometry. But now we have to think differently, while honoring the affection SCCO alumni have for the institution. It’s been a long process, but I think we had a solid vision for why we were doing it in terms of interprofessional health care education and for the long-term viability of our institution.”

As the many individuals who comprised the community of the Southern California College of Optometry made room on campus for two new programs, they also made room in hearts and minds for the potential contained within MBKU. The culture of SCCO gave a firm footing upon which to build the culture of the School for PA Studies and the College of Pharmacy, and now all three programs thrive (or continue to thrive) by nearly every conceivable metric. The three programs are either fully accredited or well on the path to full accreditation and they are each fully enrolled, with strong student applications.

“As I look at MBKU, I think, ‘We really have a University,’” says Dr. Alexander. “It’s very specialized. But we’re nimble and we have a vision of what we’re trying to do. We’re in excellent financial condition and as we come of age, I’m very proud of what we’ve done.” For each program at MBKU to be fully enrolled is obviously a positive; however, the University’s long-term viability truly depends on each of its programs prospering, creating sustained success from high-quality faculty operating in high-quality facilities who deliver a high-quality education. The Southern California College of Optometry, the School of PA Studies, and the College of Pharmacy all enjoy clear markers of this success.

Three Programs, Many Successes

With its 100-year head start, SCCO obviously has a long track record of producing tremendous optometrists who contribute a great deal to the profession of optometry. “The reputation of SCCO has been stellar for decades,” says Dr. Alexander. “The leadership in the profession our graduates have provided, between AOA presidents, Academy presidents, research leaders as well as professional advocacy, gives us a solid reputation – not to mention that day-in, day-out quality patient care all around the world.” This year, SCCO Professor Susan Cotter, OD, MS, FAAO, was awarded the prestigious Glenn A. Fry Award and Lecture, given by the American Academy of Optometry to honor distinguished individuals who have made important contributions to advancing the profession of optometry. As the current co-chair of Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group (PEDIG) and a tireless educator and mentor at MBKU, Dr. Cotter embodies excellence SCCO has long been known for.

The School of PA studies is now fully accredited and in a short time has achieved as clear an indicator of high-quality education as possible: graduates so far have achieved a 100% pass rate on the boards exams. “Because of the long legacy of SCCO, our PA program was embraced by the start here in Orange County and California,” says Dr. Alexander. “The leadership of that program created an advisory board that included leaders of other programs, PA leaders, as well as local physicians and surgeons, and did a good job of introducing themselves to the community and saying, ‘We’d like to work together.’ So they created a high-quality reputation before they accepted their first student.”

The College of Pharmacy was similarly well-received from the beginning as a result of dynamic leadership that crafted a strong curriculum taught by excellent faculty, enabling the program to achieve its targets for full accreditation, which is on the horizon. The College will graduate its first pharmacy class this year, and Dr. Alexander has great affection for these trailblazing students. “This first class, I’m so proud of them,” he says. “They came before they even knew that they’d be able graduate from this institution, so these students are really pioneers. And I’ve told them – as I have also told those first classes of PA students – that they deserve credit for helping form and develop the college in terms of the culture and the expectations of both students and professors. They’ve lived through the pain of the start-up, but with the pain comes the pride of knowing that they helped start this college. That’s a big deal.”

A Culture of Partnership

Now as each program flourishes, Dr. Alexander has an opportunity to pull the ambitions of the institution as a whole into even sharper focus, combining rigorous education with an even more deliberate student-centered culture. The change over the last few decades in how the relationship between students and their academic institution is viewed can often be criticized, but Dr. Alexander sees it as yet another way to innovate, and to stay on the cutting edge of health care education. “When a student dreams of becoming a professional, today they are looking for an institution that’s going to view them respectfully, as a partner in achieving their goals, as opposed to years gone by when they might have tried to break you down and kick you out. To me, the modern concept of a student and educational institution is about partnership.”

At the same time, Dr. Alexander is careful to avoid another trend in higher education, which is to characterize that student-institution relationship as a consumeristic or a purely transactional one. Eschewing this preserves the important role of the institution and its faculty as the provider of the education, while steering clear of the idea that because a student has “purchased” something, they are entitled to have it meet their exact expectations. “A student pays their money and has every right to expectations that a certain process will be delivered to them to help them achieve their goal. But there’s also an obligation the part of the student to work hard. A student-centered culture doesn’t mean students make the rules. It means that their investment in us deserves our full attention. It means that we have a student-friendly campus that provides services and support and is sensitive to the needs of the student,” says Dr. Alexander.

Rooting for Success

This culture extends from the top down, from major decisions about how new building are designed (and older ones renovated) to many smaller details like adding places for students to charge their phones and laptops. One student who had recently been accepted at a number of other larger schools but chose to attend MBKU told Dr. Alexander that he felt like “Ketchum was a place where they were rooting for you.” Combine that student’s understanding of Ketchum’s culture with the hard work of faculty and administrators to build and strengthen programs, as well as the support and affection of alumni, and you have in a nutshell Dr. Alexander’s vision for the University.

“We have created something very unique and special, that gives optometry and PA and pharmacy students a leg up when they begin practice because they’ve all been working together and they all have of a vision of good health care that they’re very much prepared for. So, I’m very proud of what we’ve done, and I think the leadership is too, and the students and alumni are feeling it, too. It’s pretty amazing.”