Despite an earlier rejection by University of North Carolina officials, plans to open an optometry school at the universitys Pembroke campus may move forward after all.

At the request of university officials, deans of three optometry schools presented a feasibility report to the university systems Office of the President on December 23. The deans were optometrists George Foster of Northeast- ern State University College of Optometry, Gerald Lowther of Indiana University College of Optometry and Melvin Shipp of Ohio State University College of Optometry.

Drs. Foster, Lowther and Shipp originally visited the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) campus on September 29, where they met with administrators and faculty as well as area optometrists and representatives from the state optometric association.

In the report, the deans stated three chief concerns:

 Is another optometry school needed? In May 2000, an AOA-commissioned study, Workforce Projections for Optometry, predicted an oversupply of O.D.s through 2020. Thats a concern shared by the universitys Graduate Council. The council, citing the projected oversupply of O.D.s, already rejected the proposal for a new optometry school and asked instead for the feasibility study.

Optometrists opposed to the school echo this concern. A petition on the Web site that calls for the university not to proceed with the proposed school states that optometrists did not ask for a new school and that a new school would add to the projected overabundance of eye doctors, leading to decreased incomes and lower quality of life for existing practitioners.

However, Charles Harrington, Ph.D., provost and vice president of academic affairs for UNCP, says the demand is there for additional optometry graduates. Employment of optometrists will grow 18% to 26% through 2014, due to the vision care needs of a growing and aging population, according to the Bureau of Labor Stastics Occupational Outlook Handbook (2006-07 edition).

There also are clearly some state and regional needs for optometric education as well as the clinical services provided by an optometry program, Dr. Harrington says.

Specifically, there are no optometry programs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia or Georgia, he says. Also, the school could provide eye care services to a large low-income population in the area surrounding the universitys Pembroke campus.

  What are the costs? The university predicts start-up costs of $10 million to $12 million. The state has agreed to a $10 million bond for the purchase and development of land on which to situate the proposed college.

 Is the location suitable? Given that Pembroke, N.C., is a relatively small, rural community, the report questions whether the optometry school could attract and retain faculty.

We are consistently able to recruit and attract outstanding faculty for our programs, which include business and education. Dr. Harrington says. We have no doubts whatsoever that well be able to attract top-quality optometry professionals.

The feasibility report recommends that the UNCP planners work closely with the state optometric association and state legislators, visit other optometry schoolsvisits to Ferris State University, University of Alabama and Southern College of Optometry are scheduled for February and Marchand hire a top notch dean to attract and retain faculty.

Once again, the Graduate Council must vote on the proposed optometry school. If the council accepts it, the proposal goes to the universitys new president, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who will then make his recommendation to the universitys board of governors.

Dr. Harrington estimates that once approved by the board of governors, it would take 18 to 24 months for the new school to become operational.

Vol. No: 143:01Issue: 1/15/2006