Hofstra University this week welcomes the inaugural class of the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, marking a critical leg of its bid to vault into the ranks of the nation's top 50 universities and to spur growth of Long Island's high-tech economy.
Quickening the pace of Hofstra's decade-old effort to boost its national profile, the medical school puts the university and its partner, the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, in an elite club of 135 educational institutions nationwide with MD programs. Next up: the creation of a separate School of Engineering and Applied Science, announced just last month.
"If you are a larger-size university in the 21st century and you want to be recognized as at the cutting edge, involved in the economy, you have to have a component of hard sciences and you need to have hard science research," Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz said.
Hofstra has made strides to elevate its reputation, becoming more selective in its admissions, winning attention with events such as the final 2008 presidential debate and bringing in high-profile experts, including former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Republican political strategist Ed Rollins to serve as senior presidential fellows. In a radical move in 2009, Hofstra eliminated its football program, freeing up $4.5 million to use in other ways.
The 40 first-year students gathered Monday at the medical school, where Rabinowitz hailed them as "pioneers" and "risk-takers in the very best sense of the word."
With the medical school as a catalyst for the hard sciences, Rabinowitz, North Shore-LIJ chief executive Michael Dowling and others envision making the Hempstead university and the surrounding area into a fertile incubator of scientific discoveries and start-ups, fostering collaborative relationships between the medical school, other science programs, and such professional schools as business and law.
"When you marry a major educational institution like North Shore-LIJ, a place that does excellent clinical care, with an excellent university and the research that goes on at Feinstein, you have the ingredients for innovation and potential future business development," Dowling said, referring to North Shore-LIJ's Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.
Already, Hofstra's number of biology and chemistry majors has doubled since the 2007 announcement of the medical school, Rabinowitz said. The university now offers a doctorate in molecular medicine, its first doctoral degree in the hard sciences, and in a year will have master's degrees in public health and medical physics, and a new bachelor's program in biotechnology.
Enrollment for the 2010-11 academic year, including undergraduate, graduate and School of Law students, is about 12,000.
"What we really want is a university where the medical school and the sciences are inextricably interwoven," Hofstra provost Herman A. Berliner said. "And you need greater emphasis on the sciences, so that is what motivated us."
Hofstra is tapping into sectors where economists expect future growth -- the health-care field and sciences related to health and high-tech industries, said Pearl Kamer, the Long Island Association's chief economist. Because the Island will continue to be a high-cost area, the research sector must generate high-wage jobs for a sustainable economy, she said.
"Hofstra is really adding to the capability to commercialize new technology by adding the medical school, adding the School of Engineering and emphasizing discoveries in health care," Kamer said.
Breaking into the ranks of institutions such as Boston University and George Washington University won't be easy -- or quick, educational experts said.
Of the top 30 major private research universities surveyed by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 27 were in the same position in 1980, said Dennis Jones, president of a Colorado-based higher education research and consulting nonprofit. Of the top 50 major public research universities, 42 were in that same tier 30 years ago, he said.
"Those that are already in the top echelon work really hard to stay there," Jones said. "It's very hard and it takes a long time, probably takes 20 years of spending a lot of money, to get to the point where you are recognized as being in the league."
Hofstra's leaders are well aware of the high cost of their ambitions. The university must double its endowment of about $306 million and hope for income from fundraising and possible patents that may arise from its research to pay for enhancements, Rabinowitz said. "You really have to build that endowment up to pay for excellence," he said. "One way or another, you've got to pay for excellence."
Hofstra's efforts to raise the quality of its student body and maintain an intimate learning experience -- the student-faculty ratio is 14-1 -- means the university can't rely on tuition to increase revenue, Rabinowitz noted. Tuition for undergraduates is $32,500 per year; the university's average discount rate for freshmen is 35.5 percent.
"To be in a position to offer substantial scholarships going forward helps attract the best and the brightest, so again all this takes money," said Marilyn Monter, chairwoman of Hofstra's board of trustees. "We are hopefully going to be raising hundreds of millions of dollars."
During Rabinowitz's 10 years as president, the university has focused on raising the quality of its student body.
An evolving status
The average SAT score of first-time freshmen rose 110 points between 2000 and 2010. The percentage of freshmen who ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes grew from 12 percent in 2000 to 27.3 percent in 2010. And Hofstra's appeal outside of New York has grown -- the percentage of out-of-state students has risen from 32 percent to 48.1 percent.
Still, selling the image of a changed institution has been tough in Hofstra's own backyard. Parents in the metropolitan area are more likely to hold on to decades-old perceptions of the university as a commuter school where academics were not as rigorous, said Marilyn Emerson, founder and president of College Planning Services Inc., which has offices in Manhattan and Chappaqua.
"I know from a number of my colleagues in Virginia and Michigan, their students look at Hofstra very differently," Emerson said. "The recent building of new dorms, a good faculty-student ratio, everything has contributed to making it a school students are wanting to attend more and more. I think it's changing for metropolitan kids as well."
The new medical school, with little advertising, received a strong response, drawing more than 4,000 applications and accepting its first-year students from high-caliber schools.
An exact tally of the school's funding and operational expenses was not available, but each institution has put up significant resources. The North Shore-LIJ Health System is committing $2 million annually for the next 10 years and providing $1.5 million a year in faculty teaching support, officials said. Once the school receives full accreditation in its fourth year, the system will provide $4 million a year in scholarships and student loan forgiveness.
The university covers school expenses such as infrastructure, public safety, and administrative and building costs. Renovation and expansion of the medical school's campus facility will cost more than $35 million and be partly funded by a state grant.
The medical school has the advantage of North Shore-LIJ Health System's long track record of training some 1,500 residents and fellows a year, and about 875 medical students from other schools, Dowling said.
The new school's teaching approach is "untraditional" in that it breaks from the status quo of methods, such as rote memorization, developed in the 1970s, said Dr. Lawrence Smith, the school's dean. Gone is the model of the solo practitioner, replaced by an emphasis on teamwork.
The curriculum's designers also wanted to make the students' experience real, Smith said. The result: no lectures, an integrated pass/fail course of study carried out in teams and based upon solving case studies, and the hands-on experience of first-year students becoming EMTs and working in North Shore-LIJ's ambulance system.
This holistic approach drew students from across the country, including Branson Sparks, 24, a Louisiana Tech economics major from Alexandria, La., and Maxine Ames, 23, of Manhattan, a biological sciences major from Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Both noted that the medical school's methods are geared toward training students to become self-sufficient learners.
Sparks, who had Tulane University and Boston University on his radar, said his search ended when he learned about Hofstra's new teaching tack.
"As we say in the South, 'That was all she wrote when the pencil broke,' " he said. "The active engagement and the fact that there was not going to be any multiple-choice tests, I think, is more representative of what you would be expected to do in a clinical practice, because you are not going to have a patient come in and say, 'What's wrong with me, A, B, C, D or E or none of the above?' "
For Ames, a highlight is the medical school's promise of a more intimate educational experience. "I think I am going to get far more attention at Hofstra than at any other school, and it's really important to them how well this first class does," she said. "Also, North Shore-LIJ has a reputation for being really innovative and a forward-thinking hospital, a reputation of being very socially conscious and thoughtful, and I was really moved to be a part of that."