Q&A with Mario Ortiz
New Decker dean foresees program expansion, enrollment growth
Mario Ortiz joined Binghamton University as dean of the Decker School of Nursing on July 1, moving here from his previous position as dean, professor of nursing and endowed chair at the Vera Z. Dwyer College of Health Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. He continues to practice and publish, he’s teaching the Theory and Conceptual Foundations of Nursing course in the PhD program this semester – and, as he says, he’s “deaning.”
Question: What about the dean’s position at the Decker School drew you to Binghamton?
Answer: When I first came here I was not looking for a job at all, but I was approached to apply and looked at the job description. I saw premier everywhere and read about Decker and its history and focus. My whole background is in community health and that seemed a match. Then I called my colleagues around the country and they all said the same thing. ‘Decker, that’s the place that …’ but they couldn’t quite finish the sentence. I felt the same way about Decker. It’s not highly nationally ranked, but I know the name.
Then I met the faculty and I developed this crush. My first evening here, I thought, ‘This is sort of nice and by the time I left I remember calling home and saying, ‘I think I have a little crush.’ I kept talking about what it would mean to do astonishing things in a new place. So I thought more about the vision of premier and realized I could be someplace that’s on the verge of doing astonishing things. That’s what drew me.
Q: Do you have a sense yet for what astonishing things are in the future?
A: Even the smallest thing could turn into an amazing thing. For Decker, we have to name it to claim it. The one thing I want to push us for is ‘What is the unique thing we do in nursing that we can name it and claim it more than anybody else? What is unique about who we are?’ It will take some time to figure it out and I expect we’ll have some difficult and challenging conversations to get there.
The road to being premier has consequences. We can’t run the race by training the same way.
Q: You’re talking about change.
A: And finding acceptance for change. I held a retreat for the school in August and I played a snippet of the movie ‘The Runaway Bride’ where Julia Roberts is proposing to Richard Gere. And I said to everyone at the retreat, ‘I’m proposing to you saying I’m two feet in. So how do you want to accomplish something astonishing and be two feet in?’ Change is a process and we need to keep referring back to what astonishing is.
Q: Do you have a next step?
A: I’m trying to decipher the historical part of the Decker School so we can figure out how to move it toward premier.
I also look at top 20 nursing schools in the country. Do they have strong structure? Are they not afraid to challenge what’s happening? Right now what I’m trying to decipher is what I’ve been told versus what is actually occurring. I’m trying to see the difference between a bird with puff feathers versus one with meat on its bones. Where is the substance and how can I use it; and if it’s just feathers, how can I use that?
I did an analysis of the area and the Northeast and learned that the size of the healthcare agencies and needs versus the programs we offer don’t match. We only offer nursing, but this area has a lot of healthcare needs, so for us to have a national presence and at the same time meet the needs of students who want to come here, we need to offer more. Then those students can say ‘I studied health sciences at Binghamton.’
Q: Tell us about how that kind of expansion could occur.
A: I’d like to offer a BS/MS in health sciences as a meta major and meta master’s major with concentrations in areas like health promotion, sports and exercise science, and nutrition. The concentrations could ebb and flow with the needs of the healthcare industry.
For example, let’s move us toward rehabilitation sciences – physical, occupational, and speech and language pathology. It would serve students and our populations. Graduates would have BS/MS majors in health sciences, or their entryway into a therapy field. If we want a national presence, we need to offer the programs.
In the big picture, I see it in four phases that might take us four, five or six years, but I want people to feel a sense of urgency for change, to feel that urgency. We need to start now because it will take us awhile to build — the future is already here.
Q: How would the Decker School accommodate more programs – and more students?
A: Now, for nursing we’re at 800-plus students and we could grow to 2,000 to 3,000 with health sciences. One way to enable that growth is through online education, which has been vastly aligned with nursing education for about 15 years. All of the top nursing schools have something online and we need to move that forward. Are we going to double or triple or quadruple our numbers to at least meet state and Northeast needs?
We’ll be capturing a different type of student with online programs and we have to have a structure for them. In these fields, if you build it, they’re already here. The health sciences are quite the draw and we see continued growth in these occupations over the next 10 to 20 years.
Q: How would we offer distance education for nursing?
A: At Alabama Birmingham, they say they have distance accessible programs, which makes sense. Some of the programs might be well suited for fully online, but others will need campus immersions for research and clinical competency. Students could do part of their semester in an on-campus intensive and then the rest online.
The schools who have done distance learning well have looked to companies to assist them. We would do the same using our own curriculum. They come in and do the nuts and bolts. It would be a team that comes in and says, ‘This is what we’re good at.’ They will assist us in “putting” the programs online, but it will be our curricula, faculty, enrollment requirements, etc. Nurses are usually geographically bound people, but they want to choose where they get their next degree. If they want to get it from a nationally ranked school and not have to relocate, that could be us.
Even for the PhD, we’re seeing a lot of nurses who came here because we had it, but now everybody in our area who wanted it has it, so we have to look at the trends. If we have to have a national presence, we need to look at how we can have a national reach. How are we going to compete at the same table with the top schools? The possibilities lie with hybrids where we can attract a whole different type of student.
We also have to be clear about who we are. We want a mission statement and a focus for research and practice that fits our beliefs.
Q: So, even though there is enough interest in nursing and the health sciences, it’s still a very competitive environment?
A: It’s implicit, but what I’m trying to make it more explicit is that in nursing and health sciences, we have the pleasure of lots of students all the time, but then I look at the gaps in healthcare services in the immediate area, so we want to be explicit that we provide learning for those services.
Can we have students rotate through areas where there are gaps? Then, we can be providing care in a matter than meets the needs of healthcare outcomes while we’re putting our hands out to help, rather than our hands out to ask. A lot of schools say they do it, but I think we can do it and there will be a sea of Binghamton University green out there.
Q: How do you remain focused on your vision for expansion of programs and enrollment growth?
A: I’m very good at keeping ‘the noise’ out, and what I do is help others move things forward. When I’m being an ambassador, I see and hear about all these ‘shimmers’ about what we do. I say ‘Tell me more about what you do’ and the challenges fall out of that and I can say, ‘I have students who do that.’ The majority of nurses are very good at that kind of focused listening. Right now, the Decker School is trying to figure out what’s there and what’s not there.
For big shimmers, I try to attend to them. When I met everyone here, I told them there would be change. Now I’m here and they’re saying, ‘Oh, you meant change everything!’ There’s the ripple; if we’re going to be premier and do astonishing things, we need to change. So, I try to help everyone understand and most people are two feet in.
I focus on the people who see the glimmer in the astonishing because though life is long, it’s also short.
Nurses are often thought of as doing what they’re told. That’s not me. My rule is, they’re already talking about you, so give them something to talk about, focus it. That’s what I was hired to do.
We’re excellent now, but tell me what that means. You’ll only see me teaching what I’m expert at. We’re not good at everything, so look at the evidence. I want to be at the NYU and Columbia level. There’s a difference between getting an A on an assignment and maintaining an A.
I want to be very clear about what we need to work on and what we are going to be astonishing at. It’s a lot of work, but I don’t ask people to do things I won’t do. There will always be crunch periods when we do what we normally do, plus more, because we’re building.