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Burton Webb

The University of Pikeville has been a proud education partner in Eastern Kentucky for 132 years. UPike’s remarkable growth is a testament to the innovation and hard work that exists in Appalachia. We are part of Appalachia, just as the local school systems, the hospital, or Community Trust Bank; we each have important roles to fill in the life of the City of Pikeville, the county, and the region. The university is consistently looking for growth opportunities to, directly and indirectly, benefit the community by improving the living and learning environments for the students, faculty, and staff we serve. Our student nurses, physicians-in-training, and optometrists-in-training serve the health needs of the community in a variety of ways. Our student-teachers, young entrepreneurs, and behavioral/social scientists are committed to the growth of the next generation, business, and culture. In short, we are committed to the betterment of the community in which we live.

In a recent meeting of the Pike County Fiscal Court, several statements were made about the university, our future, and our intent that were incorrect. We believe the people in that meeting hold sincere but differing views of the path ahead. Pike County Judge Executive, Ray Jones firmly believes that Library boards across the Commonwealth need more oversight, and Library Director Louella Allen believes that maintaining library services as they have been for many years in downtown Pikeville is critical to the development of the region. We agree with Judge Jones that oversight is important and we also understand the current autonomy of the library board. While we might disagree with the board’s decision regarding our request for additional space, we respect their right as an autonomous board to chart their own path. However, we would like to correct several misleading statements made in that meeting because we believe it is important for the community to have as much accurate information as possible. It is likely that the statements made were based on misunderstandings, so we hold no ill-will toward anyone involved.

On at least two occasions, the university has made an offer to purchase the library portion of the building that occupies nearly all of the space between Hambley Blvd., S. Elm Street, College Street, and Julius Ave. That “building” is actually the merger of two separate construction projects that occurred decades ago. The four-story tower portion is known as the Community Technology Center (CTC) and is currently owned and operated by UPike. The single-story portion that houses the Pike County Downtown Branch of the library is connected to the CTC tower by a two-story atrium. Two years ago, the CTC needed a new HVAC system which would cost several hundred thousand dollars to replace. Originally built with federal grant funds, the CTC had outlived its original purpose. The board assigned to govern the use of the property (Big Sandy Telecommuting Services, Inc., board) had no funding to replace the HVAC, and voted unanimously to transfer the ownership (and therefore the maintenance) of the CTC tower to the university. We accepted the gift, replaced the cooling tower, and began planning for the future of that building.

When we arrived in Pikeville a little over five and a half years ago, UPike’s nursing program was operating out of two small classrooms and a skills lab the size of a large living room. At that time, a small number of students learned how to care for patients in this cramped and inadequate space each year. Pikeville Medical Center has been consistent in their desire for the university to increase the number of nurses that we can train but to do that; we needed to find more space. For two and a half years, we tested various ideas on campus and off. During that time, we wrote and received two large federal grants that funded the purchase of several high-fidelity simulation units. These “sims” look like mannequins but are capable of being used to train physicians and nurses without risking the lives of real patients. They were purchased with federal funds and well before the renovation of the CTC.

The sims are portable; we have some in the medical school (the Coal Building, which houses the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine) and many more in the CTC; currently on the third floor. These are the portable units to which we believe Director Allen was referring. What is not portable and which we have no plans to move, is the home of the nursing program. Recently, UPike was the recipient of two very generous gifts from a single anonymous donor, which totaled approximately 2.3 million dollars. The use of this donation is restricted, which means it can only be used to complete the project intended by the donor. In this case, the renovation of the CTC as the permanent home of UPike’s Nursing program. There is no other building into which we plan to move nursing, nor is there another building into which we can invest that gift.

The first floor to be renovated, the third floor, was the old medical library, which has been relocated up into the Allara library on the hill and is open to the public. This may be where the confusion about location happened during the meeting. The medical library was relocated, not the nursing program. Currently, many of the sims are being temporarily located in the skills lab on the third floor. We are a few weeks from completing the renovation of the fourth floor of the CTC into a state-of-the-art simulation center. The scope and quality of this learning space will rival anything like it in the Commonwealth, at any university. Once the furniture is in place, we will move the sims from the third floor into their permanent home on the fourth floor of the CTC. To be clear, the CTC is not the temporary home of our nursing program. It is their permanent home.

Two statements about accreditation were made that are also incorrect. We have not been turned down to increase our class size for nursing. Currently, we are approved for up to 60 students in each class. We believe that when complete, we will be able to train up to 200 students in the new CTC space, but that will require additional approval from our accreditors. Accrediting bodies look at many things, one of which is physical space for learning. The problem we face in the CTC is classroom space. From our point of view, the library portion of that building is the best place for nursing classrooms for two reasons, proximity and speed. On a cramped campus, keeping the learning experience in close proximity is always an important consideration, and renovating an existing space is much faster than building something from scratch. We reasoned that if the library board could function out of their new facility, we would purchase the downtown facility and be able to meet the needs of PMC and other healthcare providers much more rapidly. However, this is only true if the library board agrees that the space they built near Lowes is capable of meeting the needs of the region. We asked, and they said no. The reason given by the board was that they had been advised by counsel that there were legal problems with donating, selling, or leasing the property to a private entity. Judge Jones has requested additional information about this issue and we await his findings with interest. While we are disappointed with their decision, it is well within their purview as a board to use the space in accordance with their mission. The University of Pikeville will continue to work to find a way to educate as many nursing students as possible. Unfortunately, this will take more time and provide very little flexibility for space.

We believe that both Judge Jones and Director Allen understand the dire need for more nurses in the region as well as the economic opportunity those jobs would bring. Finding quality space to educate the next generation of nurses is only part of the equation. As a community, we must encourage people to consider training (or retraining) to become nurses. Not only does the profession pay well, but it is among the most needed in the Commonwealth. At UPike, we believe firmly in the potential of all learners, regardless of age, and we encourage anyone with interest to consider applying for admission to a nursing program. Of course, all of this belief drives the need for expanded space in which to conduct training.

In the fiscal court meeting, it was stated that the university is buying property. This is true of most universities, including UPike. When we see a property we might need, we investigate whether it makes sense to purchase it. Unlike most universities, UPike is struggling to grow in a landlocked location, situated between a small city and the side of a steep mountain. We need residence hall space, academic space, and athletic space. This is not simply about providing space for the students we have, it is about growing the university by adding more programs and more students across all degree levels. Education is one of the best pathways into financial security. As one of the three major economic engines of the region, our growth is critical to the future of both Pikeville and Pike County. Universities plan decades ahead of the present reality. Our goal is to significantly grow the institution by adding a wide variety of programs at all academic levels, increasing our biomedical research footprint, and continuing to help recruit new businesses into the region.

It is apparent that we all want the same thing — a thriving region in which there are good-paying jobs that will enable our families and children to live well and stay here. If you look across the country, regions that thrive have a few things in common. Strong healthcare, great quality of life amenities, excellent education, a sound financial system, and at least one more thing - the ability to pull together and accomplish something much larger than any one person or group could do alone. We must come together and start competing with the rest of the world. Only then will our dreams for the future of Eastern Kentucky become the reality we all seek.