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Manchester Community College:
Program Survival 101

March 2, 2001
Fox TV News Story Respiratory therapists everywhere are talking about public relations and how good PR could give the profession a much needed boost. Those RTs are absolutely right. Good PR can make an enormous impact -- just ask Karen Milikowski, respiratory program director at Manchester Community College (MCC) in Connecticut. When her program was threatened with suspension, she rallied the troops and saved the day -- and the program.

With help from the AARC's Political Advocacy Contact Team and dozens of other dedicated RTs and respiratory organizations, the MCC program survived. Other results achieved by their collective efforts included local television news features, newspaper articles, published letters to the editor, and letters to the governor and other state government officials.

But you don't have to wait for a crisis to issue a local "call to action." You can create your own news with free respiratory screenings for asthma and COPD, asthma education in local schools, successful smoking cessation programs, and more -- anything that showcases how respiratory therapists help ensure good lung health. You can do what RTs in Connecticut did and achieve similar results.

Just remember: local PR is effective PR. Karen will attest to that. Here she tells the MCC respiratory program's story:

Mid-December President of Manchester Community College (MCC) Jonathan Daube notified the Respiratory Care Program faculty the program was being suspended due to low enrollment. President Daube told us the decision had been very difficult to make because he knew of the program's high quality of teaching, the successes of our graduates, the employment needs in Connecticut and throughout the country, and the fact that we were working very hard to recruit new students. He told us in no uncertain terms that low enrollment was too big an issue and that we were not to admit a respiratory care class for September.

This announcement caught us slightly by surprise because we had been working very hard on recruitment for the past three or more years. We had an aggressive marketing plan and we were just starting to see signs of an increasing applicant pool. We thought we had communicated our efforts and latest signs of improvement to administration. In addition, we had just built a brand new high-tech respiratory care classroom. The decision to suspend the program and the timing just seemed wrong.

I am happy to report that the dedication, and more importantly the action, of many local respiratory therapists brought us great success. In mid February, President Daube reversed his decision to suspend the program. He cited the following reasons:

  • Societal need
  • Quality of the program
  • Efforts of faculty and staff, members of the advisory committee, graduates, hospital representatives and others.
  • Credible assurances that current efforts will be sustained -- marketing and mentoring plans in particular, as well as the possibility of up to five new scholarships.

So how did we achieve our success? First, we believed we could turn the decision around and second, we put an action plan into action.

As I stated earlier, the enrollment problem was not new and we had developed a marketing strategy and had been working hard on recruitment. We had developed our marketing plan eighteen months earlier with the help of a public relations professional. Part of the strategy included a "what if" plan. This plan answered the question "what will you do if you are told the program is closing?" So I knew exactly what I would do, how I would do it, and who I would contact for support. I had spent seven years working with the MCC respiratory program, designing a new lab, thinking about where respiratory therapists might be working in 2010, and planning curriculum to support that type of need. This program was at the "top of its game," Connecticut needed respiratory therapists, and people in the community needed a community college to educate them. This program was not going down on my watch.

On the day President Daube told me he was "reluctantly suspending the program," the first thing I asked for was more time. I also asked him to meet with my Program Advisory Committee and explained how the members had been strong partners in our recruitment efforts and supporters of the program for many years. I told him they deserved to hear the news directly from him. He agreed to talk with them at the next meeting scheduled for mid January. This postponed the suspension for a short time and showed that Dr. Daube was willing to discuss what could be done to turn things around. I knew time would work in my favor and that if any advisory committee could change a man's mind, this committee could. I knew if we handled this in a professional way and got more information to him, in the end he would make the right decision -- but we had to take immediate action.

I called on every group we worked with to assist us in helping find solutions, educate administration, and change this situation for good. My clinical coordinator and I called clinical instructors, hospital vice presidents and administrators, and physicians (including our medical director). We contacted the Connecticut Society for Respiratory Care president and got the issue on the agenda for their next meeting. We also asked the Connecticut Hospital Association for guidance and support. I distributed an MCC Respiratory Care Program fact sheet to all these groups. The fact sheet included brief descriptions of the following: program history, NBRC pass-rates, employer and graduates survey results, clinical partnerships, Connecticut job projections, U.S. Department of Labor statistics, AARC highlights, etc. The fact sheet gave our supporters "talking points" they could use when they called or wrote letters to legislators and administrators.

I wrote to graduates and asked them to call or write the MCC president, the academic dean, and the college chancellor. In addition, I asked them to write or call their state representatives or the governor. They were also given the fact sheet and my phone number in case they needed help preparing letters.

I wrote to every respiratory care department director in the state asking them to rally the troops on our behalf and help us with the letter-writing campaign. In the end the president received about 40 letters.

A few weeks later I wrote to department directors again, and asked them to consider getting the word out about respiratory care education through hospital newsletters or bulletin boards. I asked them to consider developing scholarships for new students entering a respiratory care program anywhere in the state. I provided them with the names and contact people for all five of the Connecticut programs. To date two hospitals have initiated a scholarship program. Hopefully others, and the Connecticut Society for Respiratory Care will come through with more scholarship money and advertising.

I called respiratory therapists I considered "key people" and asked them to write letters to the editors of area newspapers. I provided them with newspaper names, addresses, and fax numbers. I gave them key writing points and assisted them with the process. Working through our local media, we could put the entire story out there; each letter giving a slightly different perspective. And remember, I spearheaded all of with the idea of saving the program and providing respiratory therapists to the community -- not saving two faculty positions at the college. This was important; our efforts were not self serving and we made certain they never appeared that way.

Once I got things moving I called AARC President Carl Wiezalis. Carl had been my program director when I was in school; I admire him greatly and have called him many times over the years for professional advice. As always, he came through. He told me I was on the right track, this would be difficult and at times painful, but we would survive. He was right! He reassured me I was doing what should be done and offered to write a letter of support. He also suggested I contact the Committee on Accreditation for Respiratory Care, the National Board for Respiratory Care, and AARC Executive Director Sam Giordano for additional information and letters of support. All of these groups came through in a big way.

Because I'm affiliated with a community college, I often work for years with students who plan to enter the program. I called several prospective students and asked them to write or call Dr. Daube on our behalf -- a few did. And a few was all I needed to reinforce the importance of community college education.

The Connecticut Society for Respiratory Care, under the leadership of Frank Salvatore Jr., discussed the situation at their January meeting. This body was well aware of the potential for program closure. One university had closed its program a year ago and the remaining programs in the state were currently under-enrolled. The CSRC was ready to act. Taking the lead, Frank activated the Political Advocacy Contact Team (PACT) to assist with the letter-writing campaign. Developed by the AARC, the PACT proved to be an excellent resource and public outreach tool. Because the team is well established in Connecticut, people were quick to write the governor and state representatives and were completely comfortable doing so. Two members, Mary Turley and Janet Brancifort volunteered to contact the attorney general's office. Because the team had been well-trained by the AARC and had established prior contacts with key state officials, the PACT's part of our effort seemed to flow beautifully.

The Connecticut Hospital Association also came to our assistance under the guidance of Vice President of Education Jack Lylis, from one of our clinical affiliates. They actively monitor workforce trends, monitor hospital needs, and lobby on behalf of healthcare in the state. They proved to be a valuable resource, as well, in that they brought information to the president and the chancellor of the community college. They initiated a meeting with Dr. Daube and told him they wanted to partner in solutions so our program would be spared. They supplied information supporting the societal need for respiratory therapists and brought credible influence to the decision table.

The MCC president was receiving letters and phone calls from state legislators and many letters from advisory committee members. About that time an excellent letter to the editor was also published thanks to RT Patricia Daley, a hospital-based educator and program graduate.

It was now time for the Advisory Committee Meeting with the college president. Dr. Daube began the discussion by reiterating the decision was solely based on low enrollment and nothing else. He said he understood the graduates were successful and that there was a great need for them, but the fact remained that people were not enrolling in the program. He left that issue to the committee. The members were aware of our enrollment problem and that the college was monitoring the situation closely. They had been helping us tackle the issue and were very vocal and action oriented when he told them about the suspension decision. They told the president very passionately and eloquently that they wanted to continue to partner with the college to turn the enrollment situation around and that they expected him to work with them in doing so.

By the end of the meeting the group was problem solving, and the president was participating actively and offering suggestions. He recommended the advisory committee members and others consider developing a mentoring program for prospective students. The committee liked the idea and agreed to consider it. By the end of the meeting, Dr. Daube graciously granted us more time to come up with a new and more aggressive marketing plan. The advisory committee named two ad hoc committees; one was a marketing taskforce and one was for the mentoring plan. People signed on and set dates for meetings. The president requested a report in 3 weeks.

The committees met and delivered reports to the president at the appointed time. The end result? The president lifted the suspension!

Not long after we clinched this victory, Marilyn Tipaldi-Schonrock, (a member of our advisory committee, the marketing task force, and a program graduate) was successful in getting FOX 61 television to do a story about our situation. Many committee members contacted a number of different television stations, and Marilyn's efforts paid off. The news spot gave great exposure not only to our program but also for the respiratory profession. It was an exciting way to close out the drama that had been unfolding for so many weeks. We are grateful to Marilyn for her efforts and to everyone who assisted us is this process and continue to support us. The Fox Television news story is available for viewing in high (cable/DSL or faster) and low (56K modem) bandwidth versions. Requires RealPlayer.

What I learned:

  • Don't take the news of program suspension or closure personally. Take it professionally and make your goal saving the program -- not your position in the program.
  • Use professional organizations as resources: the AARC, NBRC, CoARC and your state affiliate will support you in any way they can.
  • Create a strong network of therapists and others who support your cause. The AARC PACT in your state is a great place to start.
  • Contact positive, creative, dedicated people and give them jobs to do.
  • Contact any and all organizations you work with on a professional level. They will come through if you explain your plan to them and how they fit into it.
  • Keep your secretary or assistant well informed. When the phone starts ringing in the wake of a T.V. spot or newspaper article, you will need someone who understands the big picture to help take the calls. My secretary, Beverly Ferrigno, worked tirelessly on this project. She helped people write letters, came up with ideas, and was a great source of strength. This program needed her assistance and she gave it 100%.
  • Stay away from negative people, if they can't be positive tell them to stuff envelopes!

Our program's success came from many small pieces fitting together; no one piece was more important than another. Our victory resulted from teamwork and positive attitudes. However, our struggle is not over. Our efforts now focus on another challenge: increasing enrollment. So I remind you, at the "end" of a battle, remember to say thank you to everyone who offered support -- you will need their sustained energy for the next round.