‘A slap in the face:’ Quinnipiac nurse anesthesia program’s closure comes with unclear plan

Student echoes the university’s poor communication, emails show

Chatwan Mongkol, News Editor

Nurse anesthesia students are facing an uncertain future after Quinnipiac University abruptly announced their program’s closure earlier this year without a blueprint for what’s next. 

Following the School of Nursing’s “careful analysis” of its offerings and how to best allocate its resources, the university administration decided to begin a process to discontinue the nurse anesthesia program, according to an email Dean Lisa O’Connor sent to 43 students in June.

Quinnipiac University School of Nursing announced that it would begin the discontinuation process for the nurse anesthesia program in June 2021. (Connor Lawless/Chronicle)

After multiple failed attempts to schedule a meeting with the nursing school’s leadership to receive some clarification, second-year nurse anesthesia student Jasmeet Mahandru and other students asked the Connecticut Office of Higher Education (OHE) for help.

The Chronicle obtained emails exchanged between July and August from the OHE through the Freedom of Information Act, which suggest that the Quinnipiac administration did not respond to students until after they wrote to the OHE.

Emily Bjornberg, OHE senior consultant, wrote in an email to Quinnipiac Vice President for Academic Innovation and Effectiveness Annalisa Zinn after receiving student complaints asking her to contact Mahandru directly.

“I am hoping you can help me avoid a repeat of last time and try to nip this in the bud,” Bjornberg wrote.

Zinn later reached out to Mahandru, saying that the OHE informed her of the complaint and that she was pleased to answer questions and resolve any concerns.

“It is unfortunate it took the state of CT Office of Higher Education when someone could’ve done their job at QU and just responded to us,” Mahandru wrote to Zinn. “It took a (state) office to step in for a response but I’m grateful for their advocation for the students in our program.”

Infographic by Connor Lawless

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mahandru said another student in her class filed a complaint with the OHE, and she contacted two Connecticut senators about her concerns before they directed her to the OHE. Now, she said she remains distrustful of Quinnipiac and the School of Nursing.

“It appears that there hasn’t been a lot of transparency between administration and our program,” Mahandru said. “They, not our directors, but the school itself has let, personally at least me, down.”

OHE Chief Academic Officer Sean Seepersad confirmed his office received complaints from students and has communicated with the university administration to assess the situation and ensure that students can graduate. 

Seepersad said the OHE will continue to work with Quinnipiac “to keep students informed as QU fulfills its obligations and graduates their current enrollees.”

Mahandru described her experience with Quinnipiac, in an email to Zinn, as “overwhelming” because they had to deal with getting clarification from the university while taking care of their patients outside of the classroom.

“We’re upset, frustrated and tired,” Mahandru wrote. “Just because our program is closing, stop taking advantage of it. Because that is what it feels like.”

Mahandru told The Chronicle many people don’t know that nurse anesthesia students had to sacrifice a lot to be in the program, from quitting their jobs to working in intensive care units in hospitals when COVID-19 was at its peak last year.

The Chronicle reached out to multiple students in the program in recent months and has not received any responses.

Provost Debra Liebowitz told The Chronicle that the university met with students during the first week of September and the school had more answers to their questions.

“I don’t think it’s true that we haven’t been responsive,” Liebowitz said. “I think it is true that in the beginning, (we) did not have all the answers they wanted, that is true, and I understand why that was very hard.”

Liebowitz said the closure will not affect their education because the university is still committed to giving current students what they expected when they enrolled.

While the provost said the meeting with the nurse anesthesia students went well, Mahandru told The Chronicle she disagreed. She explained the leadership in the room did not seem happy when the students came well-researched and prepared to ask questions.

During the meeting, Mahandru said she thought people from the university had “no intention of answering our questions,” but they were there just to “show their face.”

“They don’t care about us, clearly evident by how unhappy the rest of the student body is at Quinnipiac, both graduate and undergraduate,” Mahandru said. “They want us to feel like this is a losing battle and to kind of keep our mouths shut and keep quiet and just bow our heads down and graduate.”

They want us to feel like this is a losing battle and to kind of keep our mouths shut and keep quiet and just bow our heads down and graduate.

— Jasmeet Mahandru, second-year nurse anesthesia student

Mahandru said a lawyer from Quinnipiac was also present at the meeting, whom she said attempted to talk over her when she asked questions.

“I cannot imagine why the school thought it would be appropriate to attempt to intimidate the students and bring their attorney, which also seems like they have something to hide or to cover,” Mahandru said.

In February, the School of Nursing implemented a “clinical education fee” for nurse anesthesia students of $15,750 per year for first-year students and $1,200 per semester for second and third-year students over the remaining semesters beginning in the previous summer.

In an email The Chronicle obtained, Mahandru wrote to Zinn stating that O’Connor told them their fees did not go directly to their program but went to the School of Nursing at large.

“(O’Connor) told us she would give us more information in regard to our program and (its) funds but that has seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Mahandru wrote in the email to Zinn.

Zinn explained in the email that the money will go toward stipends to clinical preceptors and clinical liaisons, anatomy lab and cadavers, standardized patient encounters, clinical practice resources, clinical databases and technology for student management of hours and experiences, equipment and mandatory student professional development.

Based on Zinn’s explanation, Mahandru told The Chronicle the fees were still not justified.

“Cadaver lab was already paid for during our anatomy lab class tuition,” Mahandru said. “Standardized patient encounters is also shared with NP (nurse practitioner) students who do not have this additional fee. Clinical database website is only a one-time $100 fee. We paid a technology fee every semester.”

Mahandru said it was “a slap in the face” being told that the program is closing because of financial reasons while being charged a new fee and seeing the university spending money on other things.

The provost told The Chronicle that all the money collected went specifically to the nurse anesthesia program. She also said the fees are low compared to other institutions.

Yale-New Haven’s School of Nurse Anesthesia charges $18,000. The Nurse Anesthesia Program of Hartford charges $14,000.

Nurse Anesthesia Program Director Karita Kack declined to comment on the closure and said she doesn’t have the information to confirm or deny that the clinical education fees went directly to the nurse anesthesia program.

Mahandru also told The Chronicle that the provost said twice at the meeting that she would not discuss where the money went with her.

“The school has to provide us with a breakdown of the funds,” Manhandru said. “That’s a part of their job.”

Regardless of the fee, the program will face closure. There were two things that students wanted, according to the emails. One was an itemized allocation of the funds for the program and the other was a formal meeting with the school to discuss their issues. The latter already happened.

“I hope that (the university) learns to treat their students with a little bit more integrity and respect, I think that we’re all adults,” Manhandru said. “Stop taking advantage of us. When we ask for the budget, we’re asking for the budget.”

Liebowitz said the university will submit a teach-out plan to the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) in the coming weeks, in which the council will review the plan in mid-October and respond within 30 days. She said the university will also send the finalized plan to the OHE.

“Our teach-out plan about this program is to teach-out the program, let the students continue the degree at Quinnipiac,” Liebowitz said. “The answer, in that case, is yes, we’re submitting a teach-out plan that is an in-house, continue-your-degree-at-Quinnipiac teach-out plan.”

Mahandru said this came after the school was going back and forth on whether or not the 43 students will be able to graduate from Quinnipiac. As a student in the program, Mahandru said the university should loop them into the decision-making process.

“When they make up this plan, we deserve to be a part of that plan, because we know about this program more than they do,” Mahandru said.

COA Chief Executive Officer Francis Gerbasi did not comment on where Quinnipiac is in the discontinuation process and what feedback the council has been hearing from students. According to the COA policies and procedures, the university is required to submit a teach-out plan to the council to ensure that students in the program can graduate in a timely manner.