The University of Mississippi Medical Center has let go nearly all of the instructors at its Oxford-based accelerated bachelors of science in nursing program, prompting outcry from current and former students who worry this will hurt their chances of passing the national nursing exam.
The move, announced last week, came in the middle of the program’s one-year cycle. Students received an email on May 1 that described the decision as “difficult” a few hours after five of the program’s seven faculty members were informed that UMMC would not renew their contracts this summer.
“Please understand these personnel changes are not punitive, rather this restructuring is based on programmatic and student needs,” wrote Julie Sanford, the dean of UMMC’s School of Nursing, and Leigh Holley, an assistant dean who was one of just two instructors to not be let go. Neither administrator responded to Mississippi Today’s requests for comment.
Days later, students received even more personnel news: Sanford, who UMMC named dean in 2019, would be leaving for a new position at the University of Alabama’s nursing school.
One of the five faculty members, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that UMMC would revoke their remaining month-and-a-half of pay, said she was devastated by the decision and caught completely off guard. She said the only reason they were given is that “it was a business decision.”
“I just want you to know that I have committed my life and career to this institution and to this program and to these students,” the faculty member told Mississippi Today. “I feel completely betrayed, especially when you look up the mission … of the School of Nursing. … They are not living their values and their mission and our whole faculty team did.”
Even though the instructors’ contracts aren’t up until June 30, the faculty member said that Sanford, Holley and a representative from UMMC’s Human Resources made faculty members turn in their badges and computers. Someone from UMMC was folding moving boxes during the meeting.
“This is why it’s so, so confusing,” she said. “You give us no reason, and you told the students it’s not punitive, but they treated us like criminals.”
A spokesperson said UMMC had “no comment” on the decision. Holley, who joined the program last fall, wrote in the email that she would continue teaching courses, along with instructors from the program in Jackson who will drive up. It is unclear if this arrangement will continue for future cohorts or if instructors will be permanently replaced.
“We’re very fearful for the success of our students, which is our number one concern, really,” the faculty member said. “We have a nursing shortage. We’re living in a state of desperation for nurses.”
The Oxford program, started in 2014, is one of several undergraduate nursing programs offered by UMMC and primarily caters to recent graduates who did not major in nursing. It is intensive and rigorous, packing an entire bachelors degree into just three semesters.
More than 60 students a year have graduated from the Oxford program in recent years, with many filling positions at Mississippi hospitals amid the state’s pervasive nursing shortage. According to recent data from the Mississippi Hospital Association, registered nurse vacancies and turnover rates have soared in the last year to the highest numbers in at least a decade.
One of the current students is Ashley Ledbetter, a 38-year-old former teacher who is using the program to change careers. As one of the older students in the program, she said the instructors made her feel comfortable and taught her how to navigate the at-times traumatizing profession, such as the first time she saw a patient die during clinicals.
The irony, Ledbetter noted, is that her cohort is about to enter the third and final leg on May 30, the most crucial stretch. She’s worried it will be harder to prepare for the exam with all-new instructors.
“I feel that, really, if you were focusing on student needs, you wouldn’t have taken away one of the most fundamental parts of this program before the program is over,” Ledbetter said. “Our faculty got fired in the middle of the program and that, to me, is very insane.”
On May 1, shortly before Holley and Sanford sent the email, Ledbetter said she was asked to attend a virtual meeting with other student leaders.
During the meeting, which lasted roughly 20 minutes, Ledbetter said students were told the decision was due to the program’s falling pass rates on the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX.
But Holley and Sanford did not say if the pass rates were threatening the program’s accreditation or were simply lower than UMMC wanted, Ledbetter said. The most recent nursing report from the Institutions of Higher Learning shows that UMMC’s undergraduate NCLEX pass rate fell from 100% to 95.9% during a three-year period ending in 2021, but the report includes all of UMMC’s undergraduate baccalaureate nursing programs.
“We kept being told they couldn’t give us any more information because of HR policy,” Ledbetter said. “It was very vague.”
UMMC’s bachelors of science in nursing programs, including the Oxford program, were reaccredited last year.
The faculty member said that Sanford and other UMMC administrators had previously singled out the Oxford program for its low NCLEX pass rate despite pass rates falling across the country during the pandemic.
“We’ve definitely felt under scrutiny for the past couple years, and we have been told outright, ‘if you don’t bring up your pass rates, we could end this program,’” she said. “We have bent over backwards for students and changed things, but we were just never really given a chance to watch how what we changed played out.”
A few hours after Holley and Sanford’s first email, Holley sent a follow up, acknowledging students’ reactions to the abrupt announcement. The cohort’s GroupMe blew up with texts; the instructors whose contracts were not renewed were receiving dozens of supportive messages on Facebook.
“Hi all, I know this news is unexpected, unsettling, even saddening and prompts many questions,” Holley wrote.
One of the instructors who was let go, Neeli Kirkendall, had been honored for her teaching. In 2016, she won the DAISY award for nursing faculty. One student who nominated Kirkendall for the award described her as “the ideal example of the perfect nurse.”
Kirkendall did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Alison Doyle, who graduated from the program in 2020, said she thought the lower NCLEX passing rate was likely due to the pandemic even as she felt the quality of the instruction actually improved after her classes were moved online. She was able to record and rewatch lectures rather than scramble to take notes in real time.
Doyle described the bonds that students had formed with the five instructors who were let go.
“I saw these women for 12 months more than I saw anyone else in my life when I was in nursing school,” she said.
University of Mississippi had been investing in the program in recent years, converting a former hospital in Oxford into instructional space in 2019, according to a UMMC newsletter.
Other state universities are replicating the program. In January, the University of Southern Mississippi launched the first class of a similar program at its satellite campus on the coast.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.