Jefferson College to merge with RU, creating Roanoke-based health sciences program | Roanoke News

Carilion Clinic’s Jefferson College of Health Sciences will become part of Radford University under a merger plan announced Thursday.

Faculty, students, alumni and community leaders were informed of the plans during meetings, phone calls and emails throughout the morning. The merger of Jefferson into Radford’s Waldron College of Health Sciences is expected to take up to two years to complete as leaders of the three entities determine how to combine the private college with the public university, which programs to keep, expand or create, and the types of housing and other services the students will require.

The announcement follows a similar one by Virginia Tech in 2016 to center its new School of Neuroscience in Roanoke while doubling the size of its research institute and partnering with Carilion and the city to create an innovation district centered on health sciences.

“The nidus of all health careers is here in Roanoke,” said Nancy Agee, CEO of Carilion, which owns Jefferson College. “The opportunity is here for Jefferson College and Radford University to have all the health careers here as we flesh out even more the health sciences and technology campus. So that’s the really exciting part of this is being able to bring a lot more students to the area to grow our whole focus on health sciences.”

Radford already has about 180 students enrolled in nursing and social work programs at the Roanoke Higher Education Center, and 90 students in a doctor of physical therapy program at Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital.

Jefferson College also is located at Community Hospital. The school, which started in 1982 as a two-year nursing program with a dozen students, now has 1,110 students enrolled in mostly bachelor’s and graduate programs.

Radford, Jefferson and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine created an anatomy lab together two years ago.

Agee, Radford President Brian Hemphill and Jefferson President Nathaniel Bishop on Monday discussed the merger in a board room at Riverside 1, where Carilion recently relocated some of its corporate offices. Serving as a backdrop to the meeting was a view from the boardroom’s wall of windows. As the presidents talked about what the merger will mean for the region’s educational and economic future, construction equipment moved earth that will support the foundation for the expansion of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

The Waldron College will continue to educate students both in Roanoke and in Radford.

“Roanoke is the future as we think about health and health care and meeting those needs,” Hemphill said. “This particular area is the hub of that for the commonwealth from my vantage point.”

Hemphill sees the merger as a way to create a premiere health sciences program for Virginia that will meet growing work force needs.

“One of the exciting things about this is both of us come from positions of strength,” Bishop said. “Two strong institutions are looking at bringing our resources together for a more effective and more efficient delivery of health sciences and human services education here in this region.”

“And expansion,” Agee said.

The merger will advance through a process involving five subcommittees with the chairs of each serving on a steering committee that reports to an executive committee of the three presidents. The subcommittees will look at programs, accreditation, finances, legal matters, student services, human resources, communications and branding. The plan is to merge most of Jefferson’s programs into Radford’s Waldron College of Health and Human Services.

It is not known whether the Jefferson name will be retained.

Radford does not confer associate degrees, and Jefferson still has three such programs. Hemphill said they will talk with the community colleges and other partners about serving those educational needs.

Jefferson in the last few years has transitioned to offering mostly bachelor’s and advanced degrees. In 2004, 72 percent of its students were pursuing two-year degrees. Today, only 10 percent are. Last year, 60 percent of Jefferson’s students were seeking bachelor’s degrees and 30 percent master’s or doctorates.

The merger discussion so far has been limited to the entities’ boards and presidents. Details will develop over the next 18 to 24 months, and the merger will need the approval of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Hemphill said they are already talking with that accrediting agency and with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

“This is a pretty major initiative for both of our campuses. For the full spirit of transparency and governance, we thought it was best to come forward and let the community know we were having this conversation because we want them to understand this, and not be 18, 24 months down the road and then make them aware of this,” Hemphill said. “We don’t have all the answers right now. That’s part of the process of getting people engaged.”

Agee said the merger process might look similar to the one Carilion and Virginia Tech used to create the medical school. They formed a nonprofit that is now transitioning the medical school over to Tech.

There could be costs associated with the merger, but Radford is not paying Carilion to acquire Jefferson.

With more students and faculty in Roanoke, private developers are expected to play a role in the expansion.

“I think we can envision 10 years from now this looking very different, just like it looked very different 10 years ago,” Agee said.

Carilion a decade ago began building out its clinic model on a former brownfield and joined with Tech to create a medical school and a research institute.

Agee points out the apartments and restaurants that have sprung up across from the Riverside complex. The partnership with Tech helped Carilion attract more specialists and subspecialists in particular fields.

With a growing staff, Carilion then converted a vacant grocery store on Franklin Road into the Institute for Orthopaedics and Neurosciences.

“Spinoffs happen. We took Ukrop’s and empty buildings and now you can hardly find a place to park because there’s a restaurant, a grocery store and another restaurant coming,” she said. “Doing all this together in a planned, thoughtful way will continue sustainability and make a wonderful opportunity for growth for the region.”

Hemphill said the merger also will fill a void in the health care work force.

“The needs are so vast. As we are coming together and looking at the merger, the relationship with Carilion and the additional opportunities and partnerships and exposure to our students of some of the world-class researchers at Virginia Tech Carilion, this is something that has so much potential for making a difference in meeting the needs across the commonwealth,” he said. “The regional impact will be significant, but the impact across the commonwealth will be equally powerful.”

Carilion for many years has served as a clinical training ground for Radford’s nurses.

Agee said as nursing training moved from hospital-based diploma programs to community colleges and universities, Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital partnered with Radford. Across town, Community Hospital, which was founded by Jefferson Hospital, transitioned its nursing school into a two-year associate degree in 1982 and had a dozen or so students the first year.

Jefferson now has 1,150 students. Radford has 9,400 students, with 1,400 of them in its Waldron College.

Both Bishop and Hemphill said they have more applicants than spots in their programs and are at capacity.

“Most people don’t apply unless they want a career in health care. So we turn away a lot of people who want to come.” Agee said. “This will give us the opportunity to accept more students. I hope that many more young people will look for careers in STEM and STEM-H.”

Bishop said the exceptional part of the merger is that both schools are doing well financially and academically and coming from a position of strength.

Agee praised Hemphill and Bishop for bringing the schools together. “This is not easy work to do. Everybody would have been just fine doing their own thing, but taking the time to thoughtfully develop a public-private partnership and collaborate on doing what’s best for the region and particularly our students, I just give them both a lot of credit and am appreciative.”