U to suspend occupational therapy

The occupational therapy program will no longer be recruiting students.

Matthew Gruchow

Medical School budget-cut threats are one reason officials suspended the University’s occupational therapy program in the last week of September.

By cutting recruitment efforts immediately, the move could eventually end the program and hurt Minnesota’s already-shrinking pool of occupational therapists, one official said.

The program’s director, Peggy Martin, said all of the approximately 100 students in the program will still be able to finish their degrees from the University.

The decision could end the only occupational therapy program in a Minnesota public school, Martin said.

There is no possible date to lift the suspension, she said.

“Our best hope is to relocate somewhere outside the Medical School,” Martin said.

Besides preparing for budget cuts, officials told faculty members the program doesn’t follow the Medical School’s mission to educate future physicians, Martin said.

Prior to the notice, the faculty was misled that the program had a bright future, she said.

“Now, they’re questioning the value of occupational therapy,” she said. “I feel numb at this point. I feel betrayed.”

Students are working with faculty to try to save the program, Martin said.

“Students are wanting to do something to help. They think this is a reflection on their choice of work,” she said. “They see their alternatives as more expensive and perhaps not as reachable.”

Students could enroll in similar programs in North Dakota and Wisconsin, which have reciprocity agreements with the University, Martin said.

Occupational therapy professor Cheryl Meyers said the University also tried to close the program in 1991, but supporters within the public and medical field helped save it.

The Board of Regents must approve an effort to officially close a program, she said, but indefinitely closing enrollment would also doom the program.

“Essentially, if we don’t bring in students, where will the program be? We won’t have a program,” Meyers said.

The state already has a shortage of occupational therapists, she said.

The Medical School must eliminate programs in the future after the budget cuts passed during the last few years, said Dr. Deborah Powell, dean of the Medical School.

“It’s just a question of priorities,” Powell said. “I value the program, I think it’s a good one and I think they’ve done a good job. It’s just that I value the Medical School educational program more.”

She said the school must focus on its primary mission of training doctors.

Raising tuition to cover the financial problems cannot happen, because the school’s high tuition rates already disinterest students, she said.

The Medical School and occupational therapy faculty members are discussing options for the program, she said.

“Clearly, we can’t let this drag on,” Powell said. “We’ll be making a decision in the next few months on what we want to do with the program.”

Occupational therapy sophomore Stephanie Mahal said many students came to the University because its program is well-respected.

“One of the reasons I went to the University was that it was public and that it was cheaper,” Mahal said.

A lot of important research in occupational therapy is done at the University, she said.

“The research is going to suffer quite a bit,” she said. “This is what occupational therapy as a field itself needs.”