NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Members of the Stephen F. Austin State University Board of Regents approved a new online Master of Science in nursing program within the Richard and Lucille DeWitt School of Nursing during their quarterly meeting Tuesday.

The university is seeking approval from agencies including the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Board of Nursing in preparation to offer the specialized program in spring 2017 to enable students to prepare to become family nurse practitioners.

"This program will help the whole community, as well as the School of Nursing," said Dr. Sara Bishop, SFA nursing director. "We are already one of the best-known schools of nursing in Texas-our graduation rates are great and our students perform remarkably on their board exams. This program will put us up one more level, and we are so excited about it."

In their report to the board, SFA nursing administrators said access to healthcare is a growing concern across the nation and in 2012, 132 Texas counties had a shortage of primary-care physicians. The leaders believe this program will connect SFA and Nacogdoches communities through learning opportunities.

"Many of the students will be working with area nurse practitioners, surgeons and radiologists and will be placed in clinical sites where they will receive assistance and training from preceptors," said Dr. Janice Hensarling, associate professor of nursing, who will be the new MSN coordinator. "We have already received so much support for the community, and our program will focus on the needs of rural East Texas."

This degree will be offered primarily online with a few on-campus clinical courses. The School of Nursing received a $750,000 grant from the T.L.L. Temple Foundation to create the program, and regents authorized utilizing $250,000 of those funds for a five-year contract that will provide consulting services during the development and implementation of the new degree.

"We could not have gained our momentum if it were not for the support of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation. They gave us a great jump start, and we are most thankful," Bishop said.

Regents also authorized the SFA administration to submit plans to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for a $46.4 million STEM facility. Dr. Danny Gallant, vice president for finance and administration, updated regents on the construction timeline, scheduled to begin Nov. 1, which includes a new planetarium, multi-purpose laboratories, and facilities for computer science, physics, engineering physics and astronomy.

Regents approved a recommendation from the administration to increase tuition from $185.50 to $192 per semester credit hour, as well as lab fees for certain courses, and a $50 fee for international students who take a placement exam to prove English proficiency.

"The university recently completed a strategic planning initiative, and one of the four major goals of the new strategic plan for the university is to recruit and retain high-quality faculty and staff," Gallant said. "The College and University Professional Association provides data regarding the median salaries of public and private institutions across the country, and we have set a goal for the next fiscal year to bring all qualified employees to 80 percent of the median salary for their respective positions. The availability of funding for future salary increases will be based on budget reallocations, our ability to create efficiencies in areas across campus, and enrollment growth."

A fixed-rate tuition plan is available to SFA students who choose to pay a set amount for tuition for up to four years of coursework. Regents approved a fixed rate of $196 for students in the fiscal year 2014 cohort, $204 for the fiscal year 2015 cohort, $213 for the fiscal year 2016 cohort, and $215 for the fiscal year 2017 cohort. The fixed rates apply from the point of initial enrollment at a public or private institution for up to 12 semesters, with summer enrollment counting as one semester.

Room rates for students living on SFA's campus will not increase during the coming fiscal year, and regents approved a 2.7 percent increase for food services.

"Our contract uses the percentage increase in the Food and Beverage element of the Consumer Price Index as a benchmark for any rate increases," said Dr. Steve Westbrook, vice president for university affairs. "Although the benchmark for this year was 3.1 percent, we were able to negotiate with Aramark to reduce the increase to 2.7 percent."

In other business, regents approved a partnership with a firm that specializes in corporate sponsorships for higher education athletics. The university will pursue a contract with Learfield Sports to increase the number of sponsors advertising on new video boards approved during the regents' July 2015 meeting.

The university partnered in 2014 with ESPN3 to produce telecasts of all home football, basketball, soccer and volleyball games, and more than 80 SFA students are currently enrolled in a course to participate as members of the camera crew for the productions, which are available for viewing worldwide. Regents approved a ratification of the project budget to fund costs for fiber installation requirements that exceeded project estimates.

Regents approved offering an SFA transition course for community college transfer students. The course will be similar to SFA's freshman transition course, SFA 101, and will introduce transfer students to life at a four-year university. It will be offered at no cost to participants.

The board approved policy revisions, including a revision of the tobacco-use policy that designates SFA as a tobacco-free campus effective Aug. 22. The use of tobacco and vape products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, vape pens and other products, is prohibited on all property owned, leased, occupied, or controlled by SFA. The policy applies to all employees, students, university affiliates, contractors and visitors.

Regents ratified $535,888 in additional grant awards allocable to the 2016 fiscal year; the funds are a portion of $6.6 million for the fiscal year. Regents approved the fiscal year 2014-15 annual financial report, acknowledged receipt of the audit report, and approved the SFA Charter School's audited financial statements.

During the Tuesday meeting, the board approved:

  • the ratification of SFA's energy service performance contracts with Siemens Industry for three phases of an energy-savings project initiated in 2009;
  • a contract for a content management system for the university website;
  • a restoration and drainage project budget for the Austin and Rusk buildings; and
  • the purchase of networking equipment.

Regents approved policy revisions and received updates regarding the university's branding campaign and redesign of the SFA website. Regents heard reports from the Faculty Senate, the Student Government Association and from Dr. Baker Pattillo, SFA president.