Niswonger Optometry College already improving lives, moving toward launch of full program

Published 8:09 am Monday, September 9, 2019

Designed to significantly enhance health care quality in Central Appalachia, Tusculum University’s Niswonger College of Optometry is on schedule with its academic program development, community outreach and facility preparation.

“Our faculty and staff, in conjunction with the university’s administration, have worked diligently to create a program that will be a standard bearer for eye care in the nation,” said Dr. Andrew Buzzelli, founding dean of the Niswonger College of Optometry and executive vice president of Tusculum’s College of Health Sciences. “Already, we are stemming ocular disease through patient care in clinics, and we are excitedly preparing for the days when we can teach and train students.”

The Niswonger College of Medicine has opened clinics in the Meen Center on Tusculum’s Greeneville campus and at a Ballad Health primary care facility at 316 Marketplace Blvd. in Johnson City. Staffing the clinics are optometrists on the Niswonger College of Optometry faculty — Drs. Donnie Akers, Adam Hickenbotham, Greg Moore and Mashael Al-Namaeh. Dr. Buzzelli said these optometrists have increased their patient numbers daily, which is important for eventual student training.

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Tusculum has hired all faculty members needed to teach the inaugural group of students and is in the middle of recruiting and accessing additional faculty to accommodate the second class, Dr. Buzzelli said. The initial faculty members are developing a curriculum that will ensure students are taught and trained in the contemporary practice of optometric medicine.

Dr. Buzzelli said renovations to the Meen Center on the Greeneville campus have created a state-of-the-art atmosphere for the Niswonger College of Medicine. Crews completed renovation work on the ground floor and first floor of that 100,000-square-foot facility in the spring, and the university has begun equipment installation, he said.

“We are pleased with the excellent work conducted by the faculty and staff with the Niswonger College of Optometry and their partners throughout the university,” said Dr. Greg Nelson, Tusculum’s acting president. “The Niswonger College of Optometry is a point of pride for all of Tusculum and will be a jewel for our region’s health and economy. Combined with the many achievements occurring in other areas of the university, the Niswonger College of Optometry will position Tusculum for long-term success.”

The Accreditation Council on Optometric Education has designated the Niswonger College of Optometry as a “stage-two applicant.” This stage is not a pre-accreditation or accreditation status but rather a step towards potential accreditation. The Niswonger College of Optometry is engaged in developing the program to meet accreditation standards.

Moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2 cleared the way for a site visit from the ACOE. The initial plan was for the site visit to occur later this year, but Tusculum has elected to change this visit to summer 2020.

“We are excited about and prepared for our site visit from the ACOE,” Dr. Nelson said. “But after careful evaluation, we recognize the value of taking additional time to further prepare ourselves and have sufficient time to recruit outstanding students who will meet the goals for the Niswonger College of Optometry.”

Had the Niswonger College of Optometry proceeded with the original time frame, the ACOE might have decided the program was meeting all requirements and granted preliminary approval of accreditation in the spring. That would have meant Tusculum could start recruiting students and begin classes in fall 2020. Tusculum officials concluded that would not be enough time to complete the process of recruiting 70 students.

In addition to revising the date for the site visit, Tusculum has chosen to extend the starting date of classes to fall 2021, pending preliminary approval of accreditation.

“While all of us would love to launch the Niswonger College of Optometry as soon as possible, this program represents a generational shift in optometric care and requires excellence in every aspect of the program’s inauguration,” Dr. Buzzelli said. “We are grateful to ACOE officials for understanding our approach and look forward to continuing working with them.”

Dr. Buzzelli said the Niswonger College of Optometry’s momentum will continue.

“The Niswonger College of Optometry is already a strong partner with our communities in Northeast Tennessee and the rest of Central Appalachia,” he said. “For 225 years, Tusculum’s faculty, staff and administration have defined quality education in the mountains. The Niswonger College of Optometry and all of its personnel want to advance that tradition to the next level.”