LOGAN -- Utah State University's plan to launch a veterinary program is competing with funding requests from other cash-starved colleges.
The Utah Board of Trustees is questioning the Logan school's plan, saying the money needed for a veterinary program might better be spent churning out more doctors at another state school, the University of Utah. The state is projecting a need for more primary-care doctors as Utah's population grows and ages. Rural Utah, meanwhile, is short on veterinarians.
Randy Dryer, chairman of the Utah Board of Trustees, told The Salt Lake Tribune it's a question of priorities: Does Utah need more doctors to treat animals or people?
Trustees at Utah State want to offer a veterinary program in a partnership with one of the nation's most established programs. Up to 30 students would spend their first two years studying at Utah State, then finish a degree at Washington State University.
Utah State already has programs in animal-health sciences and is asking for $2 million a year to support the front half of a veterinary program. Supporters say that would leverage Utah State's strengths on a minimal investment.
Dryer's board will take up Utah State's proposal Dec. 9, but regents also want Utah lawmakers to devote more state money to the University of Utah's medical school.
The University of Utah was forced by federal Medicaid cutbacks to cut 20 slots in its incoming medical class last year, to 82 students.
The board of trustees is looking to make both funding requests simultaneously, but that might be asking too much of the Utah Legislature, which has been forced by declining state revenues to cut higher-education spending for two straight years. The belt-tightening has created a backlog of funding requests for college programs and capital improvements.
"Should we be starting up new programs when there are some unmet needs that have existed for some time and have been cut back?" Dryer asked at a recent Board of Trustees' meeting. "I want there to be a long-term strategic view."
The hesitation doesn't just pit Utah State's proposed veterinary program against the University of Utah's medical school. The regents' top funding priority for 2011 is pay hikes at all of Utah's public colleges and universities. Faculties and staff members haven't seen a raise in two years.
Regents also have made capital improvements a priority. The University of Utah needs extra money to finish replacing underground utilities. Utah State's Price campus -- formerly called the College of Eastern Utah -- wants to replace aging theater and music buildings.
Lawmakers say they're hesitant to champion or diminish one priority over another.
"Legislation stands on it own. We don't pit the merits of one against the other," said Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, a veterinarian who plans to sponsor legislation supporting Utah State's veterinary program if the Board of Regents authorizes it.