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Board backs admissions freeze on MassBay nursing program

State regulators yesterday upheld a freeze on admissions for the spring term in the nursing program at Massachusetts Bay Community College, but declined to issue stiffer sanctions because of the college's pledge to make substantial changes.

The state Board of Registration in Nursing unanimously voted to bar the popular program from accepting new applicants because of fear that MassBay lacks the administrators and faculty to run an effective program.

The college was also under fire for allegedly tampering with one student's grades, but state board officials said it was an isolated misunderstanding despite faculty assertions that the problem is widespread.

The board, which began investigating the school's nursing program in April, voted after a tense meeting with college officials yesterday. School officials said they were pleased that the board supported their plans to improve the program, one of the state's largest.

"We thought they were fair," said Carole M. Berotte Joseph, president of the Wellesley-based college. "We feel vindicated."

The admissions freeze will not affect 72 students who have already been accepted for the fall term, but threatens enrollment for the spring semester. The college had planned to send out acceptance letters this week.

"As of now, they cannot admit students for the spring 2008 semester," said Jean Pontikas, director of the division of health professions licensure at the Department of Public Health. Pontikas said the ban would be lifted if the school convinces the board it has rectified the problems.

The board told the school that it risks harsher penalties if it does not hire a permanent program administrator and three faculty members by the end of the year. MassBay graduates cannot be licensed if the school loses board approval. The board, which ordered the school to update its improvement plans next month, will meet to review the program in September. "We'll continue to monitor them closely," said board chairwoman Diane Hanley.

Hanley said the school has developed a strong plan to bring the program into compliance with state standards, including appointing an interim nursing director this week and pledging to hire more faculty members.

"They are definitely on the right track," she said. "They've addressed many of our concerns."

The school has five full-time faculty members for approximately 300 students in the registered nursing program, a low ratio that alarmed board members.

"I can't imagine with five full-time faculty you can continue a quality program," said board member Anne Zabriskie.

Berotte Joseph said the college had launched an aggressive campaign to recruit faculty. "We are doing our best to bring people in, but we don't offer the kind of salaries that are competitive," she said. "It simply does not pay for people to come and teach for $50,000. That's the reality of the field." She acknowledged the school needed to improve the program, but said it would take time.

Joe O'Neill, president of the MassBay Professional Association, said the board's decision to continue the admission ban was an extraordinary step. "It shows how serious their concerns are," he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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