The Colleen Conway-Welch Legacy
In 1985, after Colleen Conway married Ted Welch, she signed an informal written agreement between the two of them that she would resign as dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing after five years. Eight years later Welch lovingly tore up the agreement and handed her the pieces.
Twenty-nine years later Conway-Welch is stepping down at the end of the academic year. She is the second-longest sitting dean of any U.S. nursing school, but her legacy isn’t simply a measurement of time. It is reflected in the indelible impact she’s made on the school she loves, the world of nursing and the many people she has inspired along the way.
“Colleen’s contributions to Vanderbilt have been enormous,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “Her vision for innovation in advanced practice training for nurses has set a national standard, and has made Vanderbilt a leading destination for nursing education and research.”
Nearly three decades ago, Conway-Welch filled her car with most of her worldly possessions in Colorado and headed for Nashville as the incoming dean of the School of Nursing, which was on the brink of closing.
“On the drive out, even I thought I was crazy for making this leap — I was a divorced, Irish-Catholic, 40-year-old female professional woman with no Southern connections or music skills, going to Nashville. It felt like an incredible risk,” she said. “Then I told myself, it was just another adventure.”
She accepted the position with two stipulations: First, the undergraduate program would have to be overhauled; Second, the school would have to move from underneath the umbrella of the provost and instead report directly to the Medical Center vice chancellor for Health Affairs, at that time Roscoe R. (Ike) Robinson, MD.
She thought she would serve at the school for about five years — enough time to rejuvenate it with the new accelerated “bridge” to master’s program, the original idea for which she credits to Jean Watson, Dean of Nursing at the University of Colorado, in the early 1980s.
“Sometimes you can’t do things in increments, you have to just find the window and drive the truck through it,” said Conway-Welch. One of those cases was the decision by her and the Nursing School faculty to no longer admit freshman into the program. “I woke up in a cold sweat the night before telling the registrar, but we needed to press on.”
She thinks the biggest difference she has made in her professional career is developing the bridge program, where students have several different entry points toward earning their Master’s in the Science of Nursing degree. Now, accelerated programs are common and flourishing around the country.
From the start, Conway-Welch believed her primary responsibility was to continue to increase the value of all nursing degrees from Vanderbilt. “That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I’ve done.” VUSN currently ranks 15th in the latest US News and World Report rankings.
Ironically, one of her very first fundraising visits was one of her most successful. It was to Ted Welch, father of a Vanderbilt nursing school student and prominent local businessman. Conway-Welch recalls preparing in her Green Hills condo the night before. She wrote down all the key points and practiced her delivery in front of the mirror for hours.
Ten minutes into the meeting, Welch agreed to give the school the amount requested. Conway thanked him, but rattled on with her presentation.
Their next meeting was a dinner date. Colleen and Ted’s courtship ensued and the two married just three months later.
There is no question that Conway-Welch ushered in an era of nursing education reform at Vanderbilt, which continues today. Her ability to see what is on the horizon for nursing, and to help set the stage through educational opportunities, preparing VUSN’s graduates for an ever-changing health care environment, has been the hallmark of her career.
“Colleen has done things as a dean that really have not been done in any other place. She sets the bar, particularly for private school deans, for the scope of things we should be involved in beyond academics, research and a little practice. We have been one great big demonstration project,” said Linda Norman, DSN, RN, FAAN, the Valere Potter Menefee Chair in Nursing and senior associate dean of Academics.
During her deanship, the school’s faculty practice network has flourished, starting with Bonnie Pilon, DSN, RN, FAAN, senior associate dean for Clinical and Community Partnerships, coming on board in 1989. The network now includes several clinics in underserved neighborhoods, two nurse-midwifery clinics, a school-nurse contract with Metro Davidson County, and others. These sites improve access to health care for patients and serve as places for students to gain valuable clinical experience.
“Colleen is always moving to the next horizon. She saw things and continues to see things that the rest of us don’t always see clearly. She has pushed and dragged us into the next decade and into the next century,” said Pilon.
Her vision and leadership resulted in the school’s academic progress. Realizing the need to provide nurses with doctoral education, Conway-Welch opened the PhD program in 1993 and the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program in 2008.
Before others considered how technology could offer new options of cur-riculum delivery, Conway-Welch saw it as the wave of the future. Today, VUSN is known nationally as a role model for successful use of information technology. More than half of the 1,000 students currently enrolled are educated via blended distance-learning programs, spending part of their classtime physically at VUSN and the rest in clinicals and classes online.
“Colleen is a true visionary. When she first recruited me here in 2000, her comment was ‘I need some senior leadership in this area because we need to know what to do next. I trust you to figure that out,’” said Betsy Weiner, PhD, RN, the Centennial Foundation Professor of Nursing and senior associate dean for Informatics.
As Conway-Welch rejuvenated VUSN, people across the country took notice. She has become a national leader in the world of health care, never shying away from difficult or controversial issues. When addressing students at graduation, she tells them that with a nursing degree, they can be entrepreneurs, policymakers, advocates and more. She says it, because she has lived it.
In 1997, she was elected into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. President Ronald Reagan named her to “The Presidential Commission on Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic, 1988,” a bipartisan commission on the HIV epidemic. In 2006, she was appointed by President George W. Bush for a five-year term as a member of the Board of Regents for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. She is a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing.
“Dean Conway-Welch has made contributions in all areas of nursing, but her support of nursing research has been extraordinary. During her involvement in the national leadership effort, the National Institute of Nursing Research was established. Her unwavering support of science, especially in the areas of post-doctoral fellowship, has resulted in increasing the number of nurse scientists whose discoveries have positive effects on patients, families and communities,” said Ann Minnick, PhD, RN, senior associate dean for Research.
“The thing that I admire most about her is that she is so committed to the work that is being done here at the school and its impact on society and health care in general,” said Becky Keck, MSN, RN, senior associate dean for Administration and Operations and chief administrative officer at VUSN. “She has been a very active advocate for nursing policy and for public health issues – on state and national levels.”
Conway-Welch will continue to serve as a member of the Vanderbilt faculty, working with her successor and Balser, in support of the School of Nursing and nursing and health policy issues.
– John Howser and Kathy Rivers