Hearing a call for expansion

Below the bustle of the student services lobby, the Speech and Hearing Sciences Department is holed up in the southwest corner of the Neuberger basement. It’s a department that much of PSU manages to pass by.

Culturally, it’s further than a flight of stairs away from the main stream of Portland State. As the only professional training program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it gets as much attention from the community members that visit its student practicum clinics as from the student body.

On a campus that boasts campus-wide wi-fi, Speech and Hearing’s most current equipment blends in with the antique audiometers kept around as collector’s items.

And while it’s not the only program to feel a funding crunch, the diminutive Speech and Hearing Sciences department – with just eight full-time faculty members – could, with a different location or a little more support, better fund itself, Department Chair Tom Dolan says.

Though there’s a demand for speech pathologists and competition for space in the program is increasing, the department can’t simply expand, Dolan explained.

Currently, the speech pathology program can only admit 25 students each year. “We had 125 applicants for 25 slots this year… it’s an intense competition,” Dolan said. “We had to turn away as many as 20 students we thought were qualified because we didn’t have space.”

“They’re a very important program,” College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Marvin Kaiser said. “They have some terrific faculty, and there’s a lot of student demand.”

“There’s a strong demand for speech pathologists statewide,” Dolan said. “We would like to be able to train more students. In rural Oregon there is a critical shortage of speech pathologists in the schools. They’re screaming for new graduates.”

The department would love to expand to meet the demand on both ends, but since students need extensive clinical training, increasing the size means not only adding course sections, but also attracting more patients to the clinics and hiring more supervisors.

Kaiser supports increasing the department size through clinic expansion as well.

“We’ve talked a lot over the years about the clinics generating more,” he said. “It’s a desirable thing. How do we make that happen?”

“The primary limitation (on admitting more students) is clinical supervision,” Dolan said. “Students have to get a certain number of hours of practicum, and it’s a very time-intensive process. The supervisor has to be there for a large percentage of the time,” Dolan explained. “We would need to hire more supervisors and move a lot more clients through our clinics to accommodate more students.”

The department runs two clinics: the Audiology clinic for testing hearing and fitting hearing aids, and Speech and Language, which treats a variety of speech disorders. Profit from the clinics replenishes supplies and funds new equipment purchases. Operating at a higher level, it could also pad the budget for more clinical supervisors, allowing the program to admit more students.

But the Neuberger basement location is a hard sell to one of the clinic’s target demographics.

“Many of the people we serve are elderly,” Dolan said. “I think it would serve the clinic much better to be at street level.”

To that end, the faculty considered leasing space in the Broadway Housing building, but ultimately deemed it too expensive.

“Even at a reduced rate there would be a lot of pressure to pay the lease. The faculty worried that that would become our primary mission,” Dolan said. “We’ve looked at other locations for the department, but nothing’s ever materialized.”

Kaiser said he’s discussed making the clinic more visible, but so far it hasn’t worked out. “Obviously, we need to work on that.”

The location is a point of contention for some students as well as patients. “We’re kind of secluded down here,” second-year graduate student Susan Howard said. “We tend to be overlooked. Most students don’t even know we exist.”

“I like the department. I think it’s awesome,” Howard said. “[But] it feels like we have a lack of communication with the college, and we’re the communication department, the science end of it, at least.”

Students bear part of the burden of tight budgets, including a $250 departmental fee each term, Howard said. “We have to help fund the department,” she said.

Speech and Hearing had to abandon its Masters program in Audiology when American Speech-Language Hearing Association raised the accreditation to doctorate level last year.

Upgrading the program at Portland State would have meant hiring professors with more advanced degrees, Dolan said.

“That’s hard to do in a time of cuts to higher education.”

The department has a regular budget from College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but because the budget for new equipment comes from revenue from the clinic and research grants, “We don’t really get an equipment budget from the University,” Dolan said.

Dolan prefers to talk about how far the department has come rather than chafing about the constraints.

Since formally splitting off from the Speech Communication Department five years ago, things have improved, Dolan said. “Becoming a department was a big step for us. It took care of a lot of problems.”

“There is a market demand and a student demand. It’s really up to us to expand the program to meet those demands.”