New president spearheads the school’s efforts to bounce back from charges of fraud against his predecessor.
In April 1996, the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) was rocked by scandal. President Boyd Banwell, OD, and chairman of the board of trustees Joseph Ebbesen, OD, resigned under pressure after an internal investigation alleged that the two doctors had worked to defraud the college out of more than $2 million. The school and the Illinois Attorney General filed civil charges against the doctors and Dr. Banwell sued the school, claiming wrongful termination…
The current situation is a far cry from what Dr. Charles F. Mullen, OD, FAAO saw when he came to the campus in December 1997 as acting president after spending 6 years as the Director of Optometry Service for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “When I arrived, I would say morale was generally low among the faculty and the staff. I would describe the student body as more confused over the issue than having low morale,” he said. “Naturally, there was some initial surprise and concern for the stability and future of the institution,” agreed Michael Chaglasian, OD, chairman of the faculty executive committee.
Faced with the challenge of restoring the reputation of the 125 year old institution, Dr. Mullen brought with him an inclusive style, soliciting opinions from the faculty, administration and even students. His style is a stark contrast to his predecessor’s.
Shortly after Dr. Mullen arrived he began meeting with individual classes on campus to discuss the legal difficulties with students. He now meets monthly with the faculty executive committee, which had not met regularly under the former president. The faculty also now has two representatives on the board of trustees.
Dr. Mullen also introduced a “Prescription for Excellence,” a strategic direction for the faculty, students and college as a whole.
ICO also began informing alumni about the controversy and the positive developments occurring at the college. Efforts to reach out to alumni were well received said Patrick McCallig, ICO’s vice president for institutional advancement. An alumni newsletter was started, and Mr. McCallig began meeting monthly with the president of ICO’s Alumni Council. “The Alumni Council felt that they had been virtually ignored in everything that was going on,” Mr. McCallig said. “Rather than the alumni being put off by this, my sense is they really welcome the opportunity to be involved.”
The college’s renewed focus on its alumni has paid immediate dividends. In the past, ICO had done little in the way of soliciting alumni donations, but in 1998 annual giving to the school increased 100% from the previous year, Dr. Mullen said.
In what some might consider the college’s darkest days, the University of Chicago approached ICO to engage in a wide-ranging affiliation. The university had been interested in this partnership for some time, but could not reach an agreement with the previous administration. “We were actually negotiating this right through all the worst publicity. We now have this in place, and it is working extremely well,” Dr. Mullen said.
Members of the faculty of the University of Chicago’s department of ophthalmology and visual science have been providing clinical education for nine fourth year optometry students per quarter on ICO’s campus and have been staffing the school’s Center for Advanced Eye Care. ICO students have been receiving training at the University of Chicago and its affiliated facilities, and the ICO faculty members have been assigned to work with the University of Chicago’s faculty and ophthalmologic residents. Second-year medical students from the University of Chicago have been taught basic eye care procedures by ICO faculty.
Future endeavors between the schools will include the creation of a joint optometry-Ph.D. degree program combining ICO’s clinical training with the University of Chicago’s research capabilities. The schools are developing the program and funding methods and hope to have them in place within the next 2 years, Dr. Mullen said.
Dr. Mullen also has expanded ICO’s externship program. When he arrived on campus in December 1996, the school had 12 affiliations for students to develop clinical experience with patients while working with optometrists and ophthalmologists outside of classes. ICO now has 76 externship affiliations with health care institutions across the country.
Enrollment at ICO did not drop after the incident, according to Mr. McCallig, and graduating students did not suffer as a result of the negative attention surrounding the institution. ICO’s placement program brings together students and alumni and practices that are adding staff. During the past 5 years, the school has seen increases in the number of inquires from practices, said Mark Colip, OD, dean for student affairs.
To protect the college against problems in the future, Dr. Mullen instructed the school’s administration that it was their responsibility to report directly to the board any action by him or any senior officer that seemed out of line.
ICO has since hired Peat Marwick, a well-known auditing firm, to analyze the school’s books. The college has begun addressing each of the firm’s suggestions, Dr. Mullen said. The school recently refinanced its bonds, and Standard & Poor’s reviewed the college’s financial status and awarded it a preliminary investment grade rating for the bonds. This underscores ICO’s efforts to address its financial policies and controls and to ensure history will not repeat itself, Dr. Mullen said.
Today the incident is almost an afterthought on campus, says the new president. Although he still meets with the college’s attorneys regarding the pending litigation, Dr. Mullen believes the scandal is largely in the past for the school’s students, faculty, alumni, external stockholders and affiliated institutions. “I would say the majority of people have put it behind them,” he said.
Primary Care Optometry News. Volume 3, Number 6. June 1998.
Excerpts of Article written by Chris Rosenberg, Staff Writer.