To Shore university's president, success can take many courses

Health center, golf links among visions for UMES

August 19, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

PRINCESS ANNE - The first thing that strikes a visitor to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore is its size: more than 600 acres, beautifully landscaped and dotted with dozens of large, handsome buildings, many of very recent vintage.

It is easy to imagine the campus supporting a university of 10,000 students - and surprising to learn that it holds 3,200.

Into this setting comes new UMES President Thelma B. Thompson, a former vice president at Norfolk State University in Virginia. Thompson arrives at the historically black university with ideas that vary widely but share a common goal: to give UMES ambitions equal to its real estate.

Topping the list are two grand visions. The first is to turn UMES into a leading center for preventive health care, with a focus on minority health issues in rural areas such as the Eastern Shore. Included in that is a proposal that predates Thompson and is likely to be the subject of intense debate this fall - to open the state's second pharmacy school at UMES.

The second vision is a more colorful but, in Thompson's view, no less serious idea: to put a swath of UMES' undeveloped land holdings to use as a golf course and golf academy.

"The presidential search committee told me they had major expectations - they wanted whoever came in to take UMES to the next level," Thompson said. "The school has done very good work, but the national recognition is not equal to the level of the school."

The native of Jamaica, whose family moved to the Washington area in the 1960s, has to wait for the start of the school year before she can start promoting her ideas with faculty, staff and students. But she's already receiving hearty support from the University System of Maryland officials, whose approval she'll need.

"She's terrific, with all the right attributes of a good president," said system Vice Chancellor Joseph F. Vivona, who presided over Thompson's selection by the Board of Regents during his recent stint as interim chancellor. "She has very solid ideas, one after another - and they're not pie in the sky."

Thompson has at least one good reason to believe that her plans to turn UMES into a center for preventive care could bear out: She is not the only one with the vision. Eastern Shore philanthropist Mitzi Perdue, the wife of chicken magnate Frank P. Perdue, has expressed interest in helping fund preventive care initiatives involving UMES and nearby Salisbury University, and met with Thompson this month to discuss the possibility.

The rationale for such a center is clear, Thompson said: UMES has programs in food science, physical therapy, rehabilitation services, exercise science and physician's assistance. She argues that a center could organize the strands into a comprehensive preventive care program that could educate students in the delivery of wellness services and provide the services on and off campus.

Gap in health care

In doing so, she said, UMES would be addressing a glaring gap in the American health care system, particularly in rural areas and among minorities: educating people about staying healthy before the onset of serious illness. As one example, she points to the millions of people, many of them African-American, who are believed to have undiagnosed diabetes.

"This university can take responsibility for educating the public prior to disaster," said Thompson, who traces her interest in health care to a family full of physicians. "These problems exist, and it seems fitting that if there is a problem, we in higher education should do something about it."

The demand is so great, Thompson said, that the center could prove hugely popular: "I'm thinking really large. I'm thinking beyond the region, up and down the East Coast; I'm thinking the whole African diaspora."

A key component of the center would be the pharmacy program because so much preventive care today comes in the form of prescription medication. UMES hopes to present its request for a pharmacy school to the system's regents this fall and enroll its first class next fall.

Approval won't be easy. The state has a pharmacy school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and regents are forever guarding against unnecessary duplication.

UMES officials say a second school would help address the state pharmacist shortage, particularly the shortage on the Eastern Shore. It would create more slots for those interested in the field - the Baltimore school received 500 applications for this fall's class of 120 - and might attract students who haven't considered pharmacy because they didn't want to study in the big city, officials say.

"I don't see us having much effect on Baltimore's applicant pool. Baltimore can't handle everyone who's qualified," said Vice President for Academic Affairs Eucharia E. Nnadi, the former pharmacy dean at Howard University. "[UMB] isn't jumping up and down with joy about this, but it makes a lot of sense."

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