Update: The University Board of Governors unanimously approved UNF’s legislative budget request during a phone conference on Nov. 22. The request will be submitted to the Legislature, where it must gain lawmakers’ approval. The session begin in mid-January.
For the second time in six weeks, University of North Florida President David Szymanski this morning briefed a committee of the university system’s Board of Governors on UNF’s plans for an innovative “medical nexus” that would include Palm Coast and AdventHealth as key partners, with a “seed”-like university presence in Town Center that would train nurses and others developing careers in various medical fields.
UNF is requesting $23.8 million over the next two years for its “MedNex” plan. The request is one of 13 that the Board of Governors and its committees are considering as part of the system’s “university of distinction” funding program before forwarding the requests to lawmakers ahead of this winter’s legislative session.
Szymanski pitched the request to the board’s Strategic Planning Committee in early October. The committee unanimously approved the plan. Today, Szymanski presented the plan to the Budget and Finance Committee. No action was taken. The committee meets again at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, as does the full board, by teleconference, when a vote is expected on all requests.
Meanwhile Palm Coast got every local government formally to join the city in presenting a unified front as governments submit their own goals to their legislative delegation at a meeting in Bunnell Thursday: the UNF partnership is now each government’s top goal.
The two committee presentations were well received by board members as one of them spoke of MedNex generating “a lot of buzz.”
“Following today’s Board of Governor’s discussion, we are excited to have advanced through another round of discussions and we appreciate the members careful deliberation,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said in a text. “UNF and the City have recognized the Boards insistence on elevating the University System as a whole in the State of Florida when hearing such proposals. MedNex does that and so much more as it will create a true pipeline for students to learn the jobs of tomorrow in the medical field and connect directly with world class medical institutions throughout Northeast and Central Florida to become gainfully employed in a high paying, sustainable industry.”
“We’re excited about the opportunities, the possibilities,” Szymanski told the committee today. “It’s gaining a lot of momentum in terms of support from our community and I think it’s something that could be really unique and distinct and help us with our national rankings and our reputational scores.”
UNF is currently ranked 140 nationally. It is aiming to crack the top 100, and use its MedNex concept to get there while capitalizing on existing successes, such as having the state system’s second-best pass rate in its nursing school–97.3 percent, in second place by just one decimal point.
“We’re excited about the medical nexus concept,” Szymanski said. “Developing an emulation strategy is really not part of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to differentiate ourselves from others, and how can we be uniquely UNF. Medical nexus concept would be one that’s the first comprehensive university based medical nexus in the country. No one’s doing this, and really one of our strategic advantages is that we don’t have a medical school, which allows us to partner with other medical providers within our state, within our region. We started looking at our region and Jacksonville is becoming a medical hub.”
The city and its surrounding region includes a lengthening roster of top-ranked medical facilities.
“We have an opportunity to bring together health care professions, but we also have the opportunity to bring together our engineering and computer sciences,” he said. “It’s also about bringing in sociology and psychology and ethics in terms of a medical nexus. So we think about this training opportunity where we’re the hub for talent and also retaining that talent, and really the spokes of this are really all the medical providers within our area. So it’s really about MD Anderson, it’s really about Mayor Clinic, it’s about Brooks, it’s about AdventHealth.”
The hub would also offer opportunities to partner with two-year colleges (Daytona State College is one of those opportunities). In Palm Coast’s Town Center proper, the idea is to connect a UNF extension as a natural step between the Flagler County school district, Daytona State College and AdventHealth’s numerous operations in this and other counties.
“It’s relatively boundless in terms of the concept, but it’s about creating really kind of a true hub, a true epicenter in the Jacksonville area, and putting us, UNF, on the map as doing something that no one else is doing,” Szymanski said. “So there’s endless possibilities–Palm Coast also is a partner in this in terms of a city, so you start thinking about cities and communities that want to partner, and they’re willing to put–they already have a line item in one of their budgets for $1.5 million for a simulation lab. AdventHealth is also a partner for another $500,000 in this. So there’s an opportunity to grow this. In some sense this is kind of the seed money that can grow these other partnerships and help us really be a difference maker for our region and also for the state of Florida.”
Half the $12 million request for next year would be non-recurring. It would build infrastructure, buy equipment, nursing simulation labs, medical tech labs, skill labs, 3-D printing labs. The recurring dollars, he said, are about scholarships–to attract students from across the country “and make sure that they stay within our area, because we don’t really want the brain drain issues.” Some 40 percent of UNF’s students are first-generation college students. “We need that talent, in the medical profession particularly.”
The presentation elicited few questions. A board member asked about whether some of the request could be covered by carry-forward dollars (“we’re not that fortunate to have a lot of carry forward money at the end of the year,” Szymanski said. “We really use our carry forward money, a lot of it goes to pay adjuncts, for example and really staff classrooms, so we don’t have a lot of resources in that regard.”)
“There are a lot of needs, so how are you going to get specific as to what you’re really going to focus on?” a board member asked, with a focus on students and job creation. ‘It’s a big idea, big categories, I was talking to a number of people up there, they think it’s great, by the way, it’s got a lot of buzz, but there’s just a lot of need.”
Szymanski said the starting point will focus on nursing. “But we’re also starting a new data analytics program,” he said, to fill a similar need in the job market. Asked why UNF would not enlarge its nursing school, Szymanski said the MedNex idea is complementary to that, though “it’s not just about nursing.”
Sydney Kitson, who chaired today’s two-hour meeting, thanked all the presenters and board staff for the seriousness of their work and set up the next steps: “We’re going to have a call on the 22nd, this Friday, and then the committee–this committee-will formally vote on the allocation, and then a board meeting will follow so the full board can consider our recommendations.”
Holland cautioned that the university’s plan is making it through many steps, with many more ahead. “We still have to get through a legislative session and ultimately through the Governors Office,” Holland said. “We respect each and every part of this process as it will serve as a way to truly demonstrate the significance to our economy, not only as a community, a region or as a State but rather to a global economy.”