Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine's faculty and students say the food supply and economy of Pennsylvania will be at risk if the school loses the $30 million in state funding — 20 percent of their entire budget — that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proposed cutting in his latest budget.
Penn's Vet School, named the seventh best vet school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, was founded in 1884 and has received funding from the commonwealth for its entire 133-year existence.
The abrupt cut in funding was not anticipated.
“It came as a huge surprise that we were zero’d out this year,” Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine Joan Hendricks said. “They repeatedly say we're valuable. It’s not possible to reconcile zero funding with enormously valuable.”
The only vet school in the state, Penn's Vet School provides services for food animals that are “vital” to Pennsylvania, David Galligan said. Galligan is a professor of animal health economics and a graduate of both Penn's Vet School and the Wharton School.
“Most people, I find, have really minimal idea of the role that vets are playing in the whole food chain and how critical that is to the country,” Galligan said. “[Vets] maintain a secure, safe food system and ensure that we don’t have outbreaks of zoonotic diseases that could harm people.”
Not only does the Vet School create a safe food supply by keeping animals healthy, Galligan explained that it also benefits Pennsylvania’s economy. Agriculture is one of Pennsylvania's major industries, and animal agriculture, particularly dairy, is the largest and most profitable portion.
“The Vet School plays a very critical role in ensuring the safety and future productivity of [the dairy industry],” Galligan said. “Animal agriculture is really important to Pennsylvania. It employs a lot of people, it’s important to the state’s economy and the veterinary school is a vital component of ensuring that that remains viable.”
The research and technologies developed by the Vet School help Pennsylvania remain competitive in the dairy industry. Galligan likened it to the state’s “essential infrastructure.”
Penn's Vet School is one of three labs that does animal diagnostic testing for diseases like the bird flu, salmonella and E. Coli, which Hendricks says is the reason Pennsylvania has had few food scandals. Those labs are partially funded by the state.
The money the school receives from the state only goes towards services in Pennsylvania, and Hendricks noted that if the budget cut was approved, Penn's Vet School would shift its focus internationally rather than in-state. This change would make Penn's Vet School “the Wharton of vet schools," she said.
Second year Vet School student Allyson Anderson worried that without state funding Penn's Vet School would no longer be as connected to rural Pennsylvania, which means the school would attract fewer students interested in food animals.
“If the school is not receiving support from the commonwealth … there’s not going to be a need to focus on Pennsylvania,” Anderson said. “Without that food animal focus there’s no reason for a food animal-interested veterinary student to go to Penn — so then the question becomes where do your food veterinarians who work in Pennsylvania come from?”
Right now, Penn's Vet School is a 'net importer of vets', meaning that more vets stay in Pennsylvania than start in the state. Currently there is a Penn veterinarian in every county in Pennsylvania — except Potter County, where Anderson plans to work after graduation.
“Without that Vet School in Pennsylvania, I think there will be a problem of finding enough veterinarians who want to work in this area,” Anderson said.
Second year Vet School student Amy Kraus noted that the Vet School is “setting students up to work in Pennsylvania,” since vet schools teach on a state specific basis with regards to climate, terrain and geography of farm systems.
“It’s going to seriously affect our education, especially out in the large animal hospitals,” Kraus said. “Veterinarians ensure that our entire state has a safe food source and you can’t replace that really, and I’m sure that students from Pennsylvania would go to other universities to get their education and it’s less likely they would come back.”
Both Anderson and Kraus are recipients of the Commonwealth One Health Scholarship, a full scholarship for students from Pennsylvania who plan to return to the state to do full-time rural, agricultural work. The scholarship is just one example of a program funded by state money that could soon be gone.
"Knowing that Penn offered an in-state subsidy of $10,000 was great because going to vet school is a huge investment and it relieved some stress from that," first year Vet School student and Commonwealth One Health scholarship recipient Jordan Fairman said. "Being a Pennsylvania resident and not being able to get help from your state to go to the only vet school in your state is pretty sad."
Fairman also said she thinks the proposed budget does not make sense, given what Penn's Vet School gives back to the state.
"Being here at Penn I've realized how much we've given back to the community through our research and through veterinarians that have stayed in-state," Fairman said. "With the budget cuts it feels like what we've given back almost doesn't matter."
The Vet School has had trouble with a fluctuating budget since 2008, when the school’s state funding was reduced by $14.4 million, or 34 percent. In recent years, though, the state funds were increasing. Hendricks hopes that this uncertainty could be solved by a contract with the state.
For now, Gov. Wolf, whose own uncle was a chair on Penn's Vet School board, will send his budget to the Republican legislature for a vote.
Hendricks remains optimistic that the budget can be revised.
“We touch a lot of people in all different ways, we will try to make people understand what they’re losing,” Hendricks said.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Gov. Wolf's office, said in an emailed statement that "Governor Wolf has great respect for the tremendous work done by PennVet and the New Bolton Center. However, the commonwealth is facing a serious budget deficit of $3 billion that must be addressed to balance the budget. This means making difficult choices. Governor Wolf’s budget continues to support capitol investments in the New Bolton Center and will work with the Department of Agriculture and the General Assembly to find new and innovative ways to support PennVet’s important mission."