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NOTE:  The AHEC special meeting scheduled for Thursday, March 31, to discuss the proposed branch campus has been cancelled. ECU has received tentative assurance from the authors of HB 1227 that East Central University’s programming will be protected. ECU still opposes HB 1227.

A bill pending the Oklahoma House of Representatives seems to be aimed at making the Ardmore Higher Education Center a branch campus of Southeastern Oklahoma State University without including East Central University in any discussions.

ECU, Southeastern, Murray State College and Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City offer courses at AHEC. ECU offers more classes than Southeastern.

House Bill 1227 originally was introduced by State Rep. Pat Ownbey (R-Ardmore) to rename AHEC as the University Center of Southern Oklahoma. It was passed unanimously.

On Monday [April 4], however, the Senate Education Committee will see a completely new committee substitute which will make AHEC a branch campus of Southeastern Oklahoma State University. It also calls for transferring the AHEC from the Board of Trustees for the Ardmore Higher Education Program to the Regional University System of Oklahoma.

“I was not informed about this plan and I’m not in support of HB 1227,” said Connie Reilly, chair of the Board Regents of the Regional University System of Oklahoma. “I don’t think that this is in the best interest of the students of Oklahoma.”

ECU President John Hargrave said ECU has worked for several years with different groups in Ardmore to provide quality programs for students in the area.

“We felt like things were going well and Monday we met with Mercy Memorial Health Center and the Southern Oklahoma Memorial Foundation to discuss expanding ECU’s nursing program in Ardmore,” Hargrave said. “On Monday afternoon we were informed that there was a plan to eliminate ECU’s nursing program altogether.”

“We think all sides may be able to work together but ECU has not been afforded the opportunity. All we ask for is the opportunity to submit a proposal on behalf of ECU.

“In fact,” he added, “ECU submitted a proposal in 2007 to develop a branch campus in Ardmore which was accepted by the Board of Trustees of the Ardmore Higher Education Center.”

The Legislature later rejected a proposal for state funds to get the campus underway.

“We believe ECU should have the same opportunity in 2011 as other universities to be considered for the branch campus. Secret and closed-door meetings are not in the best interests of the students,” Hargrave said.

State Sen. Susan Paddack (D-Ada) said the bill was brought to her attention Monday [MARCH 28].

“This kind of discussion does not need to happen behind closed doors,” Paddack said. “It needs to be conducted in a transparent and accountable fashion. ECU has not been at the table. I am very troubled and will fight very hard to see that ECU is included in the discussion.

“They are not considering the impact on all the parties, especially the students,” she added.

ECU has offered classes and full degree programs in Ardmore for more than 30 years. Currently 440 residents of the Ardmore area take ECU classes at AHEC. During the late 1980s ECU began offering the RN to BSN completion program which allows registered nurses to complete four-year baccalaureate degrees and become eligible for better jobs.

In 2008 ECU also began offering its generic BSN nursing program at the AHEC. A partnership with Mercy Memorial Health Center and the Southern Oklahoma Memorial Foundation helped purchase equipment; fund a coordinator, faculty member and secretary; and remodel a building in downtown Ardmore for the program, with two nursing classrooms, two skills labs, three offices and a computer lab.

Hargrave said HB 1227 puts ECU’s nursing program in jeopardy because it is not protected under the current bill.

“A study several years ago showed that we were going to be about 3,000 nurses short in the state,” Paddack said. “ECU’s expansion in the Ardmore area has met a critical need in southern Oklahoma.”

“We take very seriously our mission of providing high quality baccalaureate-educated nurses to residents of southeastern Oklahoma,” Hargrave said.

“The partnership model including the AHEC, Mercy Memorial Health Center and the Southern Oklahoma Memorial Foundation is an example of the innovative and collaborative approaches ECU would use to identify and address workforce needs in the Ardmore area as well as the delivery of future degree programs to ECU at Ardmore,” Hargrave said.

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