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Nursing program frozen at MassBay

State cites college over leadership, grade-tampering

State regulatory officials have taken the unusual step of barring Massachusetts Bay Community College from accepting new applicants in its popular nursing school.

In a scathing letter to the school's president, the Board of Registration in Nursing said the program's lack of leadership and direction threatened its ability to train qualified nurses.

The board said the lack of a dean, a nursing program administrator, and several nursing instructors raised "grave concerns" that the school could run an effective program. It also cited the college's provost, saying he tampered with one student's grades and improperly advanced the student through the program.

MassBay's provost, Steve Berrien, said the school is responding seriously to the board, but he disputed the allegation that he tampered with a student's grades.

"We didn't interfere with the integrity of program, its grade policy, or its standards," Berrien said. "It was just one student and one exam, and some of us feel it's been blown slightly out of proportion." He said he anticipates that the ban on admissions will be lifted this week.

However, MassBay faculty members said in interviews that they believe administrators have tampered with other students' grades to keep as many participants as possible in the program, one of the largest in the state.

Paul Dreyer -- director of the Department of Public Health's quality assurance bureau, which oversees the nursing board -- said the alleged interference raised the fear that unqualified students were being pushed through the program. The board is scheduled to meet with college officials tomorrow to discuss the violations.

In a June 14 letter to the college's president, Carole M. Berotte Joseph, the nursing board said the college had failed to address the board's concerns.

"The absence of information as requested raised grave concerns related to the [nursing] program's ability to prepare graduates for safe, entry-level practice," the board wrote.

The program could risk losing the board's approval if it does not fix the problems, the board has told the Wellesley-based college.

Action from the board is a rare step and would damage the program's reputation, nursing specialists said. Without state approval, the students' professional futures would be at risk because nurses must graduate from a board- approved program to be licensed.

"The deadline for the college to correct the deficiency is likely to be very short given the seriousness of the circumstances," wrote the board, which began its investigation in April.

In response to the board's finding that Barrien improperly let a student take a retest, he said that based on legal counsel's advice, he allowed the retest as an accommodation for a student with a learning disability. The student failed the test and was dismissed from the program in January, but was readmitted and plans to attend this fall.

Almost 30 percent of MassBay students are enrolled in health programs, but the school has struggled to recruit faculty and administrators because budget constraints prevent it from offering competitive salaries, Berrien said.

The school has been searching for a permanent director of the 432-student nursing program since November. The recruitment effort has now been broadened, and a search firm has been hired, he said.

The accusations and possible sanctions mark another controversy for the two-year school, which graduated 93 students from its registered nurse program last year. Faculty leaders blamed the nursing program's woes on Berotte Joseph's reorganization of the school, saying it has led to an exodus of administrators, who have not been replaced.

Berotte Joseph, who in March 2005 became the first Haitian to head a US college, was criticized last year for spending more than $90,000 in university funds on events marking her inauguration.

"The institution is very unstable right now," said Brenda Carroll, a faculty member in the allied health department. "The college is in disarray, and faculty are trying very hard to keep the academic programs together."

The president was unavailable for comment, and questions were referred to Berrien. He said that the school has undergone a lot of turnover in the past two years, but that most faculty members support the school's direction.

Carroll, a vice president of the MassBay Professional Association, said the faculty and staff union filed a grievance against Berotte Joseph alleging interference with the grade appeal process.

Joseph W. O'Neill, union president, said administrators are manipulating the grade appeal process so that individual students can remain at the school.

"The provost has consistently maintained that it's one student," he said. "We're saying it's every student. They are systematically getting involved in pressuring decisions. We think the process is broken."

Sharon Tanner -- executive director of the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, the national accrediting body for nursing education programs -- said it is highly unusual for state regulators to strip a program of its approval.

The commission meets this week over separate issues at MassBay that were raised in a 2004 accreditation review.

Patricia Plummer, chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said the MassBay nursing program has traditionally been well regarded.