Skip to Content
by John Howser | Posted on Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 — 1:53 PM
After serving more than 28 years as dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN), and as the second longest sitting dean of any U.S. nursing school, Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D., CNM, the Nancy and Hilliard Travis Professor of Nursing and a national leader in nursing education, will retire from this role at the end of the academic year.
A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Nursing, Catholic University School of Nursing and New York University, Conway-Welch has been a nurse and nurse-midwife for almost 50 years.
As VUSN’s dean, Conway-Welch has amassed one of the most storied careers at Vanderbilt. On the national stage, her numerous and varied contributions are evident throughout the profession of nursing, both in nursing education and the clinical setting, through educational innovations that have impacted the way nursing care is provided and have helped transform health care.
Conway-Welch will continue to serve as a member of the faculty, working with her successor and Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine, in support of the School of Nursing.
In 1984, Conway-Welch was recruited to become VUSN’s dean by then vice chancellor for Health Affairs, Roscoe R. “Ike” Robinson, M.D. At the time she was recruited, the School of Nursing was educating only about 100 baccalaureate students and a small number of Master’s students, and had no doctoral program.
“When I was professor and director of the Nurse-Midwifery Graduate Program at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Jean Watson was dean. At the time, we talked a lot about where nursing education was going,” Conway-Welch said. She felt strongly that we should be producing a cadre of advanced practice nurses who not only have a strong nursing background, but a strong liberal arts and science background. I was very much supportive of that idea.”
“I spoke with the faculty and the administrators here prior to receiving a job offer,” said Conway-Welch, who wanted to change the nature of nursing education, and felt the nursing education program should have greater integration with the Medical Center’s clinical programs. “After the interviews, I got back on a plane, went back to my position at Denver and really didn’t think I would hear from anyone,” she said.
Today, VUSN’s enrollment totals nearly 1,000, and the school is ranked 15th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report’s Best Graduate Schools edition and is a national educational leader, producing highly sought-after graduates with Master’s and Doctorate degrees.
From the start, Conway-Welch believed her primary responsibility was to continue to increase the value of a nursing degree from Vanderbilt. “That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I’ve done,” she said.
“Colleen’s contributions to Vanderbilt have been enormous,” Balser said. “We stand in admiration of her sustained impact on nursing education not only here on our campus but across the nation. 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.”
“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. She has really pushed what contributions a school of nursing can make in a community and society at large. And we’ve been one great big demonstration project,” said Linda Norman, D.S.N., R.N., the Valere Potter Menefee Chair in Nursing and senior associate dean of Academics.
“When we started our practice she didn’t want it to be like any other nursing school’s effort. It was that demonstration of, ‘can it be self-supporting, and can we have billable services and how do we change policy to do that.’ She has always pushed that envelope. Colleen has made a huge impact to academic nursing.”
Conway-Welch began her career as a Labor and Delivery staff nurse at Georgetown University in the 1960s. Early in her career she was afforded the opportunity to work in the evolving field of Labor and Delivery in Honolulu and emergency rooms in San Francisco.
Her career progressed with additional stops in Virginia, New York City, Southern California and then Denver, prior to her move to Nashville. With each stop Conway-Welch’s responsibilities in clinical nursing and education allowed her to amass an impressive list of accomplishments while moving rapidly through the ranks of academia.
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 the acumen 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 been a great partner for nursing services since her arrival at Vanderbilt. She and I have shared a partnership that many of our CNO and Dean colleagues wished to have on their campuses. She has led the Vanderbilt School of Nursing to levels of excellence, and I have appreciated her personal and professional support in all things,” said Marilyn Dubree, M.S.N., R.N., N.E.-B.C. executive chief nursing officer for VUMC.
The creation and implementation of the Bridge Program in 1985 (now called the Pre-Specialty Program), began the school’s transition from primarily training baccalaureate nurses to awarding only Master’s and Doctorate degrees. It was the turning point for VUSN to flourish and move onto the national stage.
To achieve such change for VUSN, Conway-Welch proposed the concept to Robinson. “He turned as white as a sheet,” she said with a laugh.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to shut down the B.S.N. program, I want to change the nature of it.’ And that’s what we did,” she said.
After gaining Robinson’s support, Conway-Welch knew how important it would be for the school’s alumni to support such change.
“I remember being invited to a meeting with them. I was concerned I was going in front of the chopping block because they were all Bachelor’s-prepared alums,” she said. “I explained that my job was to increase the value of the VUSN degree at any level. And there was a little lady in the back of the group. I could hardly see her. I said ‘I know you all have questions and concerns.’ This little voice popped up from the back to say, ‘Well, we took a risk in 1935 with the Bachelor’s degree and we took another risk in the late 1950’s for a Master’s degree. I think it’s time we took another risk.’ That was Julia Hereford. Once she said that, it was like the ocean parting. To my dying day I will be grateful to her.”
Hereford was a 1936 graduate of VUSN and served as the school’s dean from 1949 through 1965. Today, VUSN’s premier donor society is named in her honor.
Speaking of this period of substantial change in the school’s history, Conway-Welch now has the value of hindsight, knowing prospective students embraced the curriculum change. Enrollment began to rise as advanced nursing degrees became the wave of the future.
“Along the way, we were able to keep most of the faculty who were here and phase out the B.S.N. degree — not the B.S.N content, but the degree. When we were going through this, I remember waking up in a cold sweat at 3 o’clock in the morning because we were not going to admit freshmen,” she said. “That did the deal. Either we were going to sink or swim. And we swam.”
In 1989, Conway-Welch hired Bonnie Pilon, D.S.N., R.N., now senior associate dean for Clinical and Community Partnerships at VUSN, as a young faculty member. “It’s been a great ride ever since. Her announcement comes as a huge loss. Colleen is a friend, she is a colleague, she is a mentor and she’s a great boss. She is a visionary,” Pilon said.
“Earlier, we were reminiscing about the state of things in 1989. There were no computers here in the school. Colleen made the budget work to bring technology in,” Pilon said. “We were the first school on campus to go school-wide with email. That’s representative of her. She’s always moving to the next horizon. She saw things and continues to see things the rest of us don’t always see clearly. She pushed and dragged us into the next decade and into the next century. I feel honored to have worked for her. I will be honored to continue to be her friend and her colleague.”
Other significant drivers for the school’s progress as an advanced practice school include establishing the doctorate programs, offering both the D.N.P. and Ph.D. degrees, while also moving the school to a nurse practitioner and nurse midwife focus. The school’s role as a national leader in the implementation and use of information technology, both on campus and taking the classroom to students through blended distance-learning programs, has been another hallmark of growth.
“Colleen is truly a visionary. As a leader, she doesn’t always fill in the details. When she first recruited me here, 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, Ph.D., R.N., the Centennial Foundation Professor of Nursing and senior associate dean for Informatics.
“I think that’s what has been such a pleasure working with her, is that she empowers us to do the kinds of things we all agree are the right thing to do. For me, in the second half of my career, to come to Vanderbilt and work with Colleen has been such a pleasure.”
Apart from successfully leading VUSN for nearly three decades, Conway-Welch’s career has seen a number of extramural highlights. In 1997, she was elected into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. President Ronald Reagan named her to “The Presidential Commission on the 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. Through her national leadership effort, the National Institute of Nursing Research was established. Her vision enabled inception of the doctoral level research program here at the School of Nursing. Her unwavering support of science, especially in the areas of post-doctoral fellowships, has resulted in nursing scientists whose discoveries have positive effects on patients, families and communities. She is an extraordinary woman and an even more extraordinary leader in her field,” said Ann Minnick, Ph.D., RN, senior associate dean for Research and post-doctoral Fellowship director.
In 2002, Conway-Welch was appointed to a four-year term as a member of the Secretary’s Advisory Council on Public Health Preparedness through the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Emergency Preparedness in the Department of Health and Human Services. She was also appointed to the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, serving from 1998-1999.
The recipient of multiple honorary doctorate degrees, Conway-Welch is also a recipient of the Project HOPE Global Health Leaderships Award, CABLE’s Women on Boards “Board Walk of Fame,” the Policy Champion Award from the National Nursing Centers Consortium, Modern Healthcare’s “Top 25 Women in Healthcare,” the National League for Nursing Award for Outstanding Leadership in Nursing Education award, and in 2003 she was named Nashvillian of the Year by the Nashville Scene.
“One of the things I admire about Colleen is that she is a true innovative, visionary leader. She has been able to bring the school through numerous difficult times in her early career as dean into the organization we find ourselves in today,” said Becky Keck, M.S.N, R.N., senior associate dean for Administration and Operations and chief administrative officer at VUSN.
“She is just phenomenal on all counts. She has very strong financial and business skills that have added greatly. She’s just a very sincere person about the academic mission for the school. The thing I admire most about her being a nursing leader 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. She has been a very active advocate for nursing policy, not only for Vanderbilt and private schools of nursing, but also for public health issues. She is a leader on state and national levels for her impact on nursing.”
In Nashville, Conway-Welch and her husband, Ted, are well known for their community involvement and support of a wide range of organizations such as the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the Comprehensive Care Center, the Nashville Symphony, Renewal House, Alive Hospice, the Hospital Hospitality House, Habitat for Humanity and the YWCA.
John Howser, (615) 322-4747
myVU, myVU News, Reporter Ann Minnick, Becky Keck, Betsy Weiner, Bonnie Pilon, Colleen Conway-Welch, featured-Reporter, Jeff Balser, Linda Norman, Marilyn Dubree, Reporter Nov 16 2012, School of Nursing
There are lots of ways to keep up with Vanderbilt. Choose your preferred method: