Dobbins defends plans with Arkansas State, says TRCC's Stephenson is 'misleading the public'

Friday, November 19, 2010
Southeast Missourian/Fred Lynch Academic Hall, April 5, 2002

A war of words between the presidents of Southeast Missouri State University and Three Rivers Community College intensified Thursday over Southeast's plan to forge an agreement with an out-of-state university that would establish a nursing program in Kennett, Mo.

Dr. Ken Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State, said Dr. Devin Stephenson, his counterpart at Three Rivers, is "absolutely wrong" and "misleading the public" in his assertions that the university is violating Missouri higher education policy in its proposed partnership with Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. The plan calls for Arkansas State University to facilitate an LPN to RN degree program at Southeast's Kennett campus, providing the technical and clinical support and faculty.

On Thursday, the Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff, Mo., reported that Stephenson submitted in the Three Rivers board of trustees minutes a letter he wrote to Dobbins dated Tuesday, copied to legislators and higher education officials, claiming a violation of public policy. Stephenson informed trustees at the meeting Wednesday he is taking a firm stance, "decrying" the "egregious, unprofessional, backhanded behavior" of Dobbins.

Stephenson also referred to a letter of intent from Arkansas State University postmarked in July confirming Southeast's request for the collaboration and reported that a hearing with the Missouri State Board of Nursing is scheduled for March.

Dobbins said Stephenson's complaints contradict history.

Three Rivers has been "asked at least three times over the past decade to do the LPN to RN degree, and they have refused," Dobbins said. "It is misleading when he says we have violated policy. We are being responsive to Missouri citizens."

Dobbins said he has yet to hear Stephenson say Three Rivers would deliver the program in Kennett.

Stephenson, according to a community college spokeswoman, would not make himself available for comment Thursday, but he reiterated his position in a statement to the Southeast Missourian.

Stephenson said the proposed partnership is in direct violation of Coordinating Board of Higher Education policy and a "significant breach of trust with the taxpayers of Missouri, Three Rivers, and the entire community college sector in the state." He said Southeast's agreement with Arkansas State University would waste time and resources and send Missouri tax dollars out of state. Three Rivers currently offers the associate degree in nursing at the Poplar Bluff and Sikeston, Mo., campuses.

Kennett is 43 miles from Poplar Bluff and 55 miles from Sikeston.

"I am surprised and disappointed that Southeast would choose to seek a partnership with ASU for the offering of an associate degree in nursing in Kennett without at least having the common decency to contact Three Rivers," Stephenson said in the statement. In his letter, he called upon Southeast to cease pursuit of the relationship with Arkansas State University, direct it to withdraw its letter of intent and "in the future demonstrate the respect and cooperation that public policy calls for."

Stephenson said Three Rivers' nursing program is superior to Arkansas State's, with a first-time pass rate of 95 percent and an overall pass rate of 100 percent compared to ASU's 77 percent. Dobbins said he was not sure where Stephenson got his statistics, pointing to the Missouri Board of Nursing website, which shows Three Rivers' Sikeston campus had a 73.9 percent pass rate and Poplar Bluff a 81.25 percent pass rate for the associate degree program in 2009.

The commissioner of higher education has the authority to mediate disputes that arise between institutions over the use of state resources and jurisdictional boundaries.

Dobbins said he's hopeful the disagreement won't hurt the Cape Girardeau Partnership for Higher Education Center, a collaboration of Southeast, Three Rivers and Mineral Area College that brought community college education to Cape Girardeau for the first time this semester. About 200 students are enrolled in associate degree programs.

Stephenson said higher education policies guided the creation of the partnership.

"The quality of our relationship with Southeast from this point will depend on their next move," Stephenson said in the statement. "While our partnership is with Southeast, our commitment remains to provide accessible, affordable education opportunities to the residents of Cape Girardeau County, with or without Southeast."

Tim Krakowiak of the Daily American Republic contributed to this report.

mkittle@semissourian.com

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One University Plaza, Cape Girardeau, MO

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