Propelled by the promise of a $15 million gift, yesterday the Mary Baldwin University Board of Trustees voted unanimously to pursue new graduate programs in health sciences, paving the way for a major programmatic and physical expansion.

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The gift and board vote follows months of extensive research into the feasibility of adding a new co-educational health sciences graduate school.

“Our market research shows that there is growing demand for these careers,” said Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox during a news conference to announce the venture this morning. “There are more qualified applicants to such programs nationally than there are slots, and demand for qualified practitioners in these fields is growing rapidly. The time to develop such programs is now.”

A donor close to the college has made a commitment to make a gift of $15 million to launch the new program, which will hit the ground running with three degree offerings: Doctor of Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy Doctor, and Master of Physician Assistant Studies. By the time of launch, each of the new programs will be positioned to be competitive in the regional and national markets.

The health sciences venture promises to attract a new market of graduate students to the college and will be a natural complement to the liberal arts and sciences programs and emphasis on research that Mary Baldwin already offers.

After earning a psychology degree from Mary Baldwin in 2007, Jennifer Oliveri found that her liberal arts background provided a solid foundation as she pursued an advanced degree in health sciences at the University of New Hampshire.

“It helps to be a well-rounded person,” said Oliveri, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in occupational therapy. “Not only to be able to talk to patients to establish a rapport, but also, in OT, it’s important to show some level of creativity in assisting patients.”

To accommodate the new program, Mary Baldwin will need to find a suitable, off-campus facilty and is considering locations within Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County. Options include renovating an existing facility or building anew.

The initial gift of $15 million represents a major percentage of required funding, but the college plans to seek additional contributions as well as fruitful new partnerships within the community. Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox is confident that the community will respond positively to the new programs, which, according to a feasibility study, will help fulfill a need that will only continue to expand over time. Response from the health care community to initial conversations has been positive.

Mary Baldwin predicts this venture will bring substantial economic return to the local community. Salary expenditures will begin as early as 2012, with payroll exceeding $4.5 million by 2019-20. In the more immediate future, there will be an investment in facilities construction.

In early 2012, Mary Baldwin expects to select a location and hire a dean. The first class of students is expected to enroll as early as 2014.

The establishment of a new graduate school is the latest in a series of recent investments the college has made to help ensure its future success. Earlier this year, construction began on a multimillion dollar, multi-phase renovation of Mary Baldwin’s Pearce Science Center. And, just last month, the college announced a new partnership with the Heifetz International Music Institute to host its summer program for elite strings students.

“We see this as a new way of fulfilling our historic mission, which is to prepare our students to compose lives of purpose as confident, compassionate changemakers,” said Mary Baldwin Board of Trustees Chair Lyn McDermid ’95. “This mission applies to health care practitioners just as surely as it applies to undergraduates studying the liberal arts and sciences.”