Struggles deepen at troubled Boston pharmacy school
If you want to study in the library at Boston’s leading pharmacy school, you had better get there early. After 9 or 10 in the morning most days, all the seats are taken. Students hover for the next available opening. During final exams, a library employee roams the aisles to whisk away the belongings of students who leave for more than 15 minutes.
Library overcrowding is just one side effect of MCPHS University’s exponential growth in recent years. Since 2000, the Fenway-based university has more than tripled its enrollment. Students use dorms, a dining hall, and a gymnasium of nearby schools through a variety of agreements that free up room in the school’s two buildings for classes.
Additionally, four academic programs are under scrutiny by state and industry regulators, who have asked the school to make rapid, significant changes. The Globe previously reported on trouble within the pharmacy and nursing programs. But the university’s optometry and occupational therapy courses are also being watched.
Amid these challenges, however, the school has found the resources to expand by 2,000 square feet the 5,000-square-foot brownstone of university president Charles F. Monahan Jr., who earned $1.4 million in the 2014-15 school year, the most recent publicly available data. That is more than what the presidents of Northeastern University and Harvard are paid.
Some students and former employees worry the quality of the education, which costs at least $32,000 per year, has been drastically compromised, perhaps hurting their prospects after graduation.
“My main concern is the success of the current students. Will they be prepared for work after school if our school isn’t up to par?” said Erin O’Leary, who studies health care management.
University administrators say the warnings from accreditors caught the school by surprise. They say they intend to bring their programs in pharmacy, optometry, and nursing up to full accreditation standards by next year. A fourth program, occupational therapy, is new; administrators are working to bring it up to accreditation standards for the first time.
Last year, confronted with escalating challenges, Monahan asked the school’s former provost, George Humphrey, to return to that role to help address the accreditation problems.
“We’ve certainly learned a lot about what we need to do going forward,” Humphrey said in an interview in his office last week. “I think we were a great institution a year and a half ago; I think we’re going to be even greater going forward.”
The university, formerly known as the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, did not make Monahan available for an interview, saying the provost was more familiar with the specifics of the accreditation issues.
Humphrey vigorously defended the school’s 2016 purchase of 704 Huntington Ave., the brownstone adjacent to two other addresses that make up the Brant House, where the president lives.
“People call it the president’s house. He does have an apartment there,” the provost said, but the rest is used for meetings, retreats, and receptions.
Although the addition will bring the total size of the house up to 7,000 square feet, the school said the president’s apartment is just 1,000 square feet. The third brownstone was purchased for $750,000, county records show.
Humphrey said the house expansion could help free up meeting space in the main building but is mostly unrelated to its main priority: bringing its academic programs into compliance with accrediting standards. The university is also dealing with frustrated students in Newton who attend an acupuncture school that MCPHS acquired in 2015; they say the quality of their program plummeted after the university took over and abruptly moved operations to Worcester.
Among the most serious warnings from regulators are findings from the state Board of Registration in Nursing, which was first alerted to problems at the school after fewer than 80 percent of students passed the nursing licensure exam three years in a row.
When regulators visited campus, they uncovered other problems as well. The school’s enrollment officer told regulators there were no minimum SAT or GPA requirements for entering the nursing program, according to a report from the state.
The MCPHS optometry program is also not fully accredited. The Accreditation Council on Optometric Education in 2016 found “major deficiencies,” including that it did not have a permanent dean, faculty did not do research, and the school did not always follow university procedures for resolving student complaints.
The doctor of pharmacy program, the university’s signature program, is on probation from its accrediting agency for issues that include the overcrowded buildings. Scores on the pharmacy licensure exam also fell from a pass rate of 92 percent for first-time takers in 2014 to 76 percent in 2016, according to the organization that administers the exam.
In all three situations, the university has already made progress, according to the accreditors and Humphrey. In many cases, he said, the curriculum needed to be updated to better align with new versions of the licensure exams. In other cases, faculty were added or coursework was adjusted.
“We acknowledged it, we analyzed it, and we’re in the process of making the adjustments,” he said.
The school has a fourth program, occupational therapy, which is also not fully accredited, but that situation is different. The program, which is located on the university’s satellite campus in Manchester, N.H., is new and still in the early phases of accreditation. The provost said he believes it will be fully accredited by the time its first class of students graduates in 2018.
It remains to be seen how these warnings could affect the university’s overall accreditation, which is granted by the New England Association for Schools and Colleges. That agency conducted its regular, 10-year review of MCPHS this spring and the results are due in the fall.
MCPHS University has grown rapidly in recent years. Between 2000 and 2014, enrollment grew from 1,737 to 6,674, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
The university has also dramatically increased its number of foreign students, especially a few years ago when the number jumped from nearly 600 in 2012 to 800 in 2013, according to data from the US Department of Homeland Security. They now number about 900.
Cramped quarters at the school’s two-building campus were a main issue cited by accreditors of the doctor of pharmacy program. The school said it plans to convert one floor of dorms in the main building into classrooms and offices to make more space.
Students share dormitories, a bookstore, and a cafeteria with the nearby Massachusetts College of Art and Design. MCPHS and nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology use the student health center at MassArt and a gym at Wentworth. Students from MCPHS are allowed to study in the libraries of nearby colleges, and beginning in 2018, MCPHS plans to rent 256 dormitory beds from a building being built at Emmanuel College.
Some former employees said they believe the school grew faster than it could handle. One said she witnessed pressure from the administration to enroll as many students as possible in the nursing program, even though, she said, there was not enough faculty to teach them.
“It’s the students that are really losing out,” said Patti McKenna, a former development director. “They’re not getting the education they’re being promised, at a really high price.”
Humphrey said the university is no longer growing. Enrollment has declined slightly on the Boston campus over the past three years, he said. The school also has a large campus in Worcester.
Students, however, aren’t convinced that the school will fix its problems quickly enough. They are often frustrated when they can’t find a place to study, and by being in classes of as many as 350 students, where it can be hard to get attention from professors.
Others said they feel they are not getting their money’s worth.
Lynnie Low, a second-year student in the acupuncture program, said MCPHS agreed to let second- and third-year students finish their degrees in Newton, instead of moving them to Worcester, but cut the size of the facility dramatically so they have to squeeze chairs around acupuncture tables in practice rooms.
Humphrey acknowledged that the Newton situation is not ideal but it was a compromise because students wanted to finish their studies there. The Worcester facility is a renovated building, he said, with parking and high-quality equipment. He noted that it is expensive to split operations between two locations.
That might be true, Low said, but it doesn’t change the fact that she feels like she is paying the same amount for a suddenly lower-quality program. The degree costs about $10,000 per semester.
“An educational experience shouldn’t be something you’re just getting through,” Low said, “but it should be something that you enjoy and that is enriching.”