MISENHEIMER, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant Inc. (ARC-PA) placed Pfeiffer University’s Physician Assistant program under accreditation probation in September 2022. Since then, a Queen City News investigation has uncovered a series of deep issues, rooted in personnel resignations, leadership concerns, and a Title IX investigation.
According to a university spokesperson, at least eight faculty members have resigned since August 2022. Four of those resignations happened simultaneously on Sept. 14.
A MASS EXODUS
Queen City News first received a phone call from a concerned parent detailing the faculty resignations and wondering how it may affect the university’s accreditation review.
According to various faculty testimonies, most of these resignations occurred due to a concern over the PA school’s new leadership, specifically the new program director, Dr. Scott Fisher.
Fisher joined the program in May 2022, reportedly to help get the program back on track for its next accreditation review.
“They expressed these concerns time and time again, and no one really wanted to listen,” said a current student who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “We were actually told that our faculty left to return to clinical practice, which is not true. And when we specifically asked, ‘What’s the real reason four people left that day?’ we were met with a little bit of discontent.”
In a statement sent to Queen City News, a spokesperson for Pfeiffer University attributed the faculty resignations to a generally high turnover rate in the field:
“We knew before launching the PA program that programs of this type have a high rate of turnover. In fact, the average PA professor’s tenure is just three years according to a recent study. Consistent with these trends, we have also experienced increased turnover in this area and have had 8 resignations in the PA program since August 2022. We have had four faculty resignations in the past month. One of those open positions was filled on Friday and other announcements will be forthcoming.
After a thorough search last year, we were pleased to have Dr. Scott Fisher join the University as our program director. Under his leadership, the class of 2023 graduated with an outstanding first-time PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certification Exam) pass rate. Pfeiffer’s 97% pass rate far surpasses the 89% national average last year. While we lament the departure of some of our talented employees, we look forward to watching Dr. Fisher continue to build an outstanding team.
As our students are not currently in the didactic (classroom) phase of their programming, we do not anticipate any negative impact from employee transition. The program remains in compliance with ARC-PA standards and will continue to support our students as they work to become physician assistants serving our rural communities.”Pfeiffer University
Students have expressed that they don’t buy into the school’s explanation.
“Any logical person can see that four people leaving the same day isn’t growing pains. Clearly, there’s something going on,” said the anonymous student.
One of the faculty members who departed on Sept. 14 sent a letter to Queen City News on behalf of them and their other recently departed colleagues, detailing their reasoning for leaving the program.
It says in part, “We chose to leave because of a growing sense that the program and graduate school leadership were making decisions and taking actions believed to be contrary to the ethics, norms, and values that should be demonstrated by professional physician assistants.”
They go on to list examples, alleging that “enforcement of workplace policies was unequal,” “student disciplinary actions were inconsistent,” and “accreditation data was submitted, which was untrue.”
TITLE IX INVESTIGATION
After speaking with current and former students, it became clear that some of these ethical concerns stemmed from the handling of a Title IX investigation brought forth in April by former student Brooke Cahn-Rose.
Ultimately, a third-party investigator found no wrongdoing by Fisher or other faculty members.
Queen City News reached out to Fisher but has yet to receive a response.
A spokesperson for the university said, “When Title IX complaints are filed, the University follows its policy, which includes an investigation by a third-party agency and an appropriate response. As these are personnel matters, we are not free to comment further.”
The Title IX report reveals that Cahn-Rose notified Fisher of her pregnancy in Sept. 2022. There was a meeting held to discuss the terms of her maternity leave, and ultimately, university officials presented Cahn-Rose with a contract that stated that she would need to take extra exams before and after her maternity leave. Cahn-Rose decided not to sign that contract.
“There was another pregnant student in the class above me who also did not have to take any of these exams, which was before Dr. Scott Fisher joined the program,” she said.
The Title IX investigator explained that “Dr. Fisher framed [the exams] as a means of support, as a way to give her confidence that she was ready to return to clinical rotations,” and that any grade she received on these exams would not count against her.
Ultimately, after Cahn-Rose said she threatened legal action, school leaders eliminated the extra testing requirement. At that point, Cahn-Rose signed the contract.
“Nowhere in the student handbook does it say that that can happen,” she said.
But allegations of discrimination don’t stop there.
Cahn-Rose’s Title IX claim also references an incident prior to her maternity leave, when she missed several weeks of her orthopedic clinical rotation due to contracting COVID-19 while pregnant. Her attendance led to her getting a failing grade.
Cahn-Rose did not properly notify school officials of her illness, so members of the school’s Academic and Professional Performance Review Committee (APPRC) met to discuss remedial steps.
According to a witness interview, Fisher entered the deliberations despite not being on the committee and “wanted something more punitive than what the APPRC had been considering.”
Another witness in the Title IX investigation recalled: “Dr. Fisher exhorting the APPRC to be ‘aggressive,’ as Ms. Cahn had failed a rotation.”
Still, the investigator noted that none of the witnesses indicated the belief that Fisher wanted Cahn-Rose eliminated from the program; rather, he was just “by the book” and “rigid.”
The APPRC eventually decided to allow Cahn-Rose to repeat the weeks she missed without a permanent impact on her grade. Fisher signed off on the decision, but in an email, Dean of Graduate Studies Dr. Christopher Boe noted that he “probably would have been more harsh.”
“Why would a woman that was pregnant and had COVID, why would she be offered a harsher punishment than to repeat the two weeks she’s missed?” said Cahn-Rose’s husband, Christian Rose.
A CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Cahn-Rose also expressed concerns over the ethics of the investigation itself.
According to documents provided by Cahn-Rose, university officials hired attorneys from the same law firm to both conduct the unbiased investigation and provide legal advice to the university on the same matter.
Cahn-Rose brought up these concerns to the investigator, who noted that North Carolina State Bar Rule 3.7(b) “allows an attorney to act as an advocate for a client, even when another attorney in the same law firm may be a witness in that same matter.” Therefore, the investigator noted that any allegations of a conflict of interest or unethical behavior are “unfounded.”
“Basically, the whole investigation was a big sham from the school to make it look like they were addressing my concerns, but really protecting the best interest of the school,” said Cahn-Rose.
Throughout Queen City News’ investigation, students and faculty members alleged that Cahn-Rose was not the only person to levy complaints to university higher-ups regarding Fisher’s conduct or leadership style, but the Title IX report states that no official complaints other than the one from Cahn-Rose were filed in accordance with the faculty handbook.
The report also stated that Boe believes much of the dissatisfaction surrounding Fisher stems from “dissatisfaction with accountability measures and expectations that Dr. Fisher put in place” to help the program regain its accreditation status.
Both the university spokesperson and former faculty members said the program still has enough staff to comply with accreditation standards, but students are concerned about the program’s future and leadership.
“I feel like what started off as more of a community and family has turned into a business venture,” said a current student.
The university’s next accreditation review is in September 2024.