YAKIMA, Wash. — Since taking the helm as president last July, Dr. Keith Watson has guided Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences through a significant increase in class size, a new building addition and the long-awaited full accreditation as an osteopathic medical college.
And he’s enjoying himself.
“I cannot imagine a more inviting or warming community to this university process,” Watson said in a recent interview, adding that colleagues around the country “can’t believe” how heartily the Yakima community supports the university. “We’ve been very, very fortunate.”
Watson came to PNWU from Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he served as the senior associate dean for academic affairs. While there, he served on PNWU’s board of directors, so he was familiar with the college and its administration and faculty.
He has 19 years of experience in medical education administration, along with nationwide connections established while serving on various accrediting boards and osteopathic committees. He’s also an osteopathic physician.
“What we got was someone who was very experienced in academic settings,” said Dr. Rich Spiegel, chairman of PNWU’s board of directors. “He’s a very calm individual who is very analytic about things. ... He’ll ask advice where he needs it; he’s very solicitous of board members’ opinions, works very well with us. ... He’s a very good thinker about everything.”
Watson has also been intentional about seeking out students. He and his wife have started hosting a group of students and their spouses once or twice a month in his home for dinner and conversation.
He credits his wife, Maureen Clothier, with the idea.
“She loves to entertain, comes from an Italian family where a bowl of pasta and a conversation around the table is how you get to know people,” he said. She even makes the pasta by hand.
“It’s created a much warmer experience as we encounter them across the campus,” he said.
After a rocky start that counted four presidents in six years, PNWU seems to have hit its stride. The first class graduated last May, with all 69 graduates matched to residency training programs around the country.
The college received full accreditation last year from the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.
In December, the college received approval from the accrediting agency to nearly double class size from 75 to 135, and the 22,000-square-foot expansion to accommodate that class is on schedule to be completed by early May.
All of those changes were long under way by the time Watson took over as president for Dr. Lloyd Butler, a founder of the college who remains active in fundraising and as a board member.
In looking ahead, Watson says the recent growth helps open the door for more change.
“We’re having dialogue with a variety of different institutions on how we can collaborate with them, develop other programs as we have the opportunity to grow over the next two to five years,” Watson said. In real-world medicine, he explained, many different health care professionals have to work together, and the upcoming model in medical education is to simulate that cooperative nature in med school.
“It really is becoming a national expectation, and something I think we can be leaders in, in bringing it to this school,” he said. The model allows for more team care and communication among providers. PNWU is talking with Heritage University and Yakima Valley Community College about physician assistant and nursing programs. Watson says they’re also looking at one day bringing pharmacy graduate students to PNWU’s campus.
“I think we’re poised to do this because we’re young and we’re nimble and better able to do it than older, more established institutions,” he said. “Our first goal has been to make the college of osteopathic medicine really solid, strong, and reach its ideal size,” which it has with the increased class size to 135 students. “Once we’re further down that path, we’ll be looking to grow our programs here.”
When PNWU set up medical sites in the five-state area of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, officials developed rotation programs that would be large enough to accommodate more students in anticipation of a class-size increase. Those slots are for students in their third year of medical school, which is spent gaining practical experience.
The next challenge will be adding more residency slots for the expanded classes once they graduate. Right now, PNWU has established 120 year-one residency slots in its five-state area, concentrated in primary care in rural areas, which is the school’s focus.
This year, Watson also oversaw the refinancing of all campus buildings through local banks, which school officials felt was important given the amount of local support the university has received.
On the PNWU campus, construction is proceeding on schedule — maybe even a little early — on the addition to Butler-Haney Hall, which will house a 400-person auditorium that can be divided into two separate classes, a cafe, student dining and study space, and a series of offices for student programs.
The $5 million expansion has been planned as Phase II of PNWU construction since the university was first built, and ties into the existing foyer. Last month, PNWU received a $450,000 grant from the Murdock Foundation to help complete the project, which is within budget.
The college has not yet raised the full $5 million.
“It’s really been pretty smooth,” said Dave Warner, facilities director. He credited the local contractor, G.H. Moen, with working efficiently and keeping communication open with school officials. “Like all construction projects, you have little things, but nothing at all major.”
The April 30-May 1 completion date means the addition will be open by the school’s May 11 graduation.