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Update: This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. on 10/24/18 to reflect changes in the November print issue
Update: This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. 10/1/18 to include information about the termination of the Nova/NVI agreement.
Update: This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. 10/1/18 to clarify how Nova faculty and students were informed of the NVI gift and college name change.
Editor’s note: This is a developing story. Check back for updates as the story continues to unfold.
Students at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry (Nova) organized Nova alumni, students at additional schools and colleges of optometry, and other ODs to protest a planned renaming of the school following a philanthropic gift from National Vision (NVI).
In addition, the American Optometric Association (AOA) questioned if the planned renaming affected the school’s accreditation via a letter to the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE).
Barely a week after the news of the gift broke, Nova and NVI mutually ended their philanthropic agreement. All terms under the agreement, including the renaming of the College of Optometry, were terminated.
AOA President Samuel D. Pierce, OD, thinks everyone is glad about how the situation resolved.
“I don’t think anyone is upset over the end result of this,” he says. “There is now no concern about the integrity of [Nova’s] program and it moving in a different direction as a result of an outside entity donating money, renaming the institution, and having the appearance of that level of influence over the program.”
In a statement, NVI CEO Reade Fahs says, “We were saddened that the initiative was not received in the way that all involved had intended: to advance the profession of optometry and optometric education by providing opportunities to provide scholarships to future optometry students and to support the optometric research initiatives of NSU. National Vision remains committed to this goal, and we are working with NSU to regroup and see how we might best be able to do that in a way that the student body, alumni, faculty, and other NSU stakeholders agree with.”
A town hall meeting organized by Nova alumnus Brandon Cornish, OD, to bring interested parties to the table to discuss how to encourage Nova to dissolve the agreement with NVI took place even though it was scheduled the day after the agreement ended.
Nova Vice Chancellor of Health Professions Irving Rosenbaum, DPA, EdD, says that Nova had a good outcome and believes the end result is better for Nova.
“The students were terrific,” he says. “Faculty stepped up to the plate. Rather than pointing fingers and remaining angry, everyone had something productive to say to say. What came out of it is going to be very helpful to us. More people are engaged and promoting optometry and our message to students. We need to continue to communicate and listen to people’s opinions. This has been a good lesson for all of us in engaging each other.”
Dr. Pierce says that the AOA will continue to apply pressure to the ACOE to review its standards with an eye toward making sure this situation doesn’t happen again.
In late September, Nova announced that it accepted a donation from NVI, which included naming rights for the College of Optometry. It was planned to be renamed Nova Southeastern University National Vision College of Optometry for an initial term of 10 years. Nova had planned a naming ceremony for the College of Optometry on Oct. 9.
NVI is the parent company of optical retailers America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, Eyeglass World, Vista Optical, and Walmart Vision Center.
ODs quickly spread word of the College of Optometry’s name change via social media, expressing shock and anger.
A Facebook group opposing the name change was created to organize ODs who are against the renaming. Dr. Brandon Cornish, who practices in Fort Lauderdale, FL, started the page as well as planned the town hall meeting.
An online petition was launched to stop the name change. At the time of agreement termination, the petition included more than 2,500 names.
Outrage was not limited to Nova alumni; ODs around the country were unhappy with Nova administration’s actions, and students at Nova and other optometry schools were protesting.
Concern over NVI
Much of the anger over the name change stems from the participation of NVI.
“The nature of this company is different,” says Alan Kabat, OD, FAAO, professor at Salus University and in the past an associate professor at Nova. “It’s in competition with private practice, which is traditionally what optometry has been about and that’s why people are so upset.”
For example, America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses advertises two pairs of eyeglasses for $69.95 with a free eye exam.
Says Nova 2012 graduate Ernesto Cepero, OD: “It’s not the changing of the name, it’s the corporation Nova chose. NVI does not employ a single OD in the state of Florida. The company hired an ophthalmologist in order to hire the ODs they need for their opticals.”
Dr. Cepero practices in Coral Gables, FL.
Says Kim Reed, OD, FAAO: “This model of eye care flies in the face of all of that optometry has accomplished when often the professional fees for the OD are so low.”
Dr. Reed is director of medical affairs ophthalmology at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and previously was a professor at Nova.
Vincent Sorgentoni, OD, Nova 2011 graduate who practices in Las Vegas, says many ODs think NVI’s business practices are not favorable to optometrists’ professional services and products.
“NVI’s marketing ploys feature two pairs of glasses for $69 with a free exam,” he says. “That tells me the company doesn’t value optometry’s services.”
He says that the company’s marketing practices blurs the lines between charity and undervaluing professional services.
“I have a hard time seeing free eye exams and two pairs of glasses for $69 as the same values as Nova,” says Dr. Cornish.
Richardson, TX, OD Ed Maker says he’s furious and it’s not even his school.
“I think it’s wrong that a corporation that is not friendly to ODs has a school named after it,” he says. “Will there be an America’s Best in there? Name an auditorium, name a floor, but don’t change the name of the school.”
Dr. Cornish is adamant that the objection to NVI’s gift is not an attack on corporate optometry.
“I do believe that corporate optometry has its place and that it’s a necessity for our profession in that it does allow students a way to get into the market and serve the underserved,” he says. “But its place is not in academia.”
Revoking endowment to NSU
Former Nova College of Optometry professor and assistant dean for clinical affairs N. Scott Gorman, OD, FAAO, has rescinded an endowed scholarship in his name as well as a living trust slated for NSU.
He says he can’t support an institution that plans to align itself with a corporate entity.
“I think the optics are very poor,” he says.
Late last week Dr. Gorman informed Nova administrators and posted publicly on Facebook that he is rescinding the N. Scott Gorman and Sarah R. Gorman Endowed Scholarship Fund and Residuary Trust Estate.
Dr. Gorman, who practices in Lady Lake, FL, spent 20 years as a professor at Nova College of Optometry and three years as associate dean for clinical education.
He says Nova’s move to rename the College of Optometry goes against the school’s vision statement:
By 2020, through excellence and innovations in teaching, research, service and learning, Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry will be recognized by accrediting agencies, the academic and optometric communities, and the general public, as a premier College of Optometry, of quality and distinction that engages all students and produces alumni who serve with integrity in their lives, professional organizations, and optometric careers.
“To have our faculty, students, and graduates associated with a college that is named after a commercial entity,” he says, “I don’t think it aligns with that vision statement.”
Dr. Gorman says he chose to publicly share news of revoking his endowment because he needed to make a statement.
“I felt I needed to do something,” he says. “I wanted to support the faculty, students, and graduates by showing them I am willing to step forward and take action in my own small way.”
About the gift
Although a Nova “naming opportunities” pricing grid dated March 28, 2018, lists the price for naming rights for the College of Optometry at $5M, the amount of the NVI gift was not confirmed.
“We haven’t released the amount,” says Nova Vice Chancellor of Health Professions Irving Rosenbaum, DPA, EdD. “[$5M] is the beginning point of negotiation.”
Dr. Rosenbaum says that the NVI gift is not $5M and declined to say if the number was higher.
He says 100 percent of the gift will go to the College of Optometry; no monies will be earmarked for the entire university.
Nova’s press release says the gift will be “used toward student scholarships, faculty, research, and increased community service.”
Dr. Rosenbaum says the primary emphasis will be on scholarships and research, focusing on the educational experience.
“It’s going to gradually increase scholarships and mean more dollars to students,” he says. “It will allow us to compete for the best students. Other optometry schools are older than we are and tend to have more scholarship dollars.”
Details about scholarship criteria and distribution have not yet been determined.
The gift will also support faculty research in the form of grants and equipment, according to Dr. Rosenbaum.
When asked if other organizations were interested in purchasing naming rights for the College of Optometry, Dr. Rosenbaum says, “No one else seriously came forward.”
He emphasizes that Nova will continue to provide equal opportunities to students from all potential employers.
“The students will be free to choose wherever they want,” he says. “We provide information, but we don’t influence. There is nothing exclusive with National Vision.”
Dr. Rosenbaum says that much of the upset over NVI’s gift and renaming has been caused by misinformation.
“There has been a lot of misinformation going out,” he says. “I’ve been on the phone with parents. Perhaps we needed to be more emphatic about getting information out. Students have a right to have their point of view. I understand some of the misconceptions. People have a view of this, and it’s not an accurate view. We need to get the facts out and talk about NVI.”
Conflict of interest?
Many ODs are asking questions about a potential conflict of interest in a corporation’s name appearing on an academic institution.
In fact, Dr. Rosenbaum points out another part of Nova has a corporate name: AutoNation Institute For Breast And Solid Tumor Cancer Research. The gift from AutoNation was given in November 2015.
However, AutoNation, unlike NVI, does not conduct business in the same field as the institution it named.
In addition, ODs wonder about how much influence NVI will have on the College of Optometry.
Dr. Rosenbaum says that NVI’s gift is not contingent on influence or control within the College of Optometry.
“Look at our track record with other donations,” he says. “In every instance, the donor has not had an influence on coursework, administration, or anything. We are not doing anything different here except accepting a name for 10 years on a building. We keep a wall between the academic and the philanthropy. Education is not negotiable.”
Dr. Kabat says there is the appearance of impropriety.
“When a company puts its name on a college, it has the appearance of an affiliation,” he says. “Hopefully Nova won’t be churning out doctors for America’s Best, but that’s what people fear it looks like.”
Dr. Sorgentoni echoes that fear.
He agrees that the name change is a conflict of interest, and he believes the wish to fund scholarships is an attempt to funnel students to NVI locations.
“Corporate interests and academia are supposed to be separate,” he says. “Academia is supposed to be impartial. There is a direct conflict of interest.”
Dr. Cornish says he worries about the future sustainability of Nova if administrators move forward with renaming the College of Optometry.
“It’s going to taint perception, and it has already,” he says. “It’s already changing the perception, and perception is reality. It’s going to cheapen the university, and it’s going to cheapen everything.”
NVI CEO Reade Fahs said his company entered into the discussion with Nova about a philanthropic gift with the knowledge that optometric education is expensive to provide and expensive for students.
“We thought our gift would be one of the most significant gifts in years and was something that might help defray costs,” he says. “We went into this thinking we were being helpful. We’re surprised that it wasn’t seen in the light in which we approached it.”
Fahs, who sits on the board of trustees for Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), says the size of the gift was linked to the naming of the College of Optometry, but NVI will not be involved with the running of the school.
“There’s no quid pro quo here,” he says. “We aren’t administering scholarships or going to play a role in the curriculum. We’re not trying to get enmeshed in the inner workings of the school.”
Fahs acknowledges that the company works through ophthalmologists, depending on location.
“In states where it’s impossible to operate our model without contracting with ophthalmology, we contract with ophthalmology,” he says. “However, we always prefer to contract with optometry or employ ODs directly.”
Fahs says that America’s Best’s entry level offer is two pairs of glasses for 69.95 with the eye exam included, and the company has been marketing that offer for 15 to 20 years.
“We serve people who are uninsured, blue collar, low income, and budget conscious,” he says. “We’re the low-cost provider of medical necessity. Because if you’re uninsured, you’re looking for value. We’re on the front line of health care for people who might not have it if it weren’t for people like us who have found a lower cost way to serve it up to them. I’m siding with the patient.”
National Vision is pro optometry to the core, says Fahs, and the company wants to be known as the most optometrist-centered organization in America.
“We won’t be successful unless we’re a great place to practice optometry,” he says. “We’ve been the fastest-growing optical chain in America for the past dozen years. Why? We are a great place to practice, and people see that.”
Fahs says NVI has a high retention level of ODs and has striven to be an optometric-centric company among optical retail chains.
“Patients and customers who really count have been choosing us,” he says. “Doctors tend to come and stick around our environment.”
Fahs estimates that NVI recruits 7 percent of U.S. graduating optometry students each year. At some schools, the number can be twice that. In addition, Fahs points out that the percentage of students is higher if students going to residency are excluded.
“We now have over 2,000 ODs practicing next our stores and about 5 percent of all ODs are practicing alongside NVI stores,” he says.
“To me, the naming is recognition of the important role those 2,000 ODs have come to play in the optometric community.”
Second-year Nova student Corey Forbes is organizing Nova students in protest of the College of Optometry’s name change. He is also in touch with supportive students at other optometry schools.
He says Nova President George L. Hanbury II, PhD, informed faculty first, word slowly leaked out to fourth-year students, then Dean David S. Loshin, OD, PhD, FAAO, notified other students via email on Sept. 17.
“The dean told us to expect a short outcry, that some ODs would be upset,” Forbes says. “I don’t think they expected it to go this long or this big. They didn’t expect other schools to get involved. I don’t think President Hanbury understands what is going on here and how important this is.”
Many students at Nova College of Optometry wore black armbands to protest the name change and used social media to spread the word.
“I put up an initial Facebook post, and someone from The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Optometry commented,” Forbes says. “He said students are supporting us. Another one said University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) College of Optometry is behind us. I heard from PCO and State University of New York (SUNY) College of Optometry.”