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Marquette grits teeth over potential dental school

By James Briggs

The prospect of a second dental school in Wisconsin sparked a heated exchange Wednesday at the Capitol between state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, and representatives from Marquette University.

The state Building Commission awarded $10 million in matching money to Marshfield-based Marshfield Clinic toward the construction of a dental training building.

The money is part of a Jauch-sponsored bill that passed in April in which the state agreed to give $10 million toward training rural dentists if an organization could raise that amount on its own.

Marshfield succeeded.

But Marquette, which supported the bill, now opposes giving the money to Marshfield after university officials said they learned about Marshfield’s desire to eventually turn the program into a dental school. Marquette’s School of Dentistry is Wisconsin’s only dental school.

“This is absolutely a departure from what they represented to us,” said Rana Altenburg, vice president of public affairs for Marquette. “We have strong concerns that, while the original intent of what they proposed was very complementary to what we would support, a second dental school is a completely different conversation that has never been had.”

Karl Ulrich, Marshfield’s president, confirmed the organization eventually might seek to transition its program into a dental school, but added it’s not an immediate priority.

“We’re not ready for that at this point in time,” Ulrich said. “We’re fully supportive of (Marquette’s) school. We see this as synergistic, providing residency programs for their graduates. We have had an open and collaborative relationship with them, and I don’t see this as any way competitive with them.”

Marquette’s understanding, Altenburg said, was that the Marshfield program always would be a next step for its graduates seeking residencies. But Marquette can’t support state money for an additional dental school at a time when money for the university’s program is running short, Altenburg said.

Jauch said Marshfield’s long-term vision was clear from the beginning. Further, he said, William Lobb, dean of Marquette’s School of Dentistry, knew Marshfield might one day shift to a dental school.

“But that’s way in the future,” Jauch said, “and a lot of steps have to be taken.”

Lobb was unavailable Wednesday, Altenburg said.

Jauch approached representatives from Marquette following an Administrative Affairs Subcommittee meeting on the third floor of the Capitol on Wednesday, leading to a loud argument that lasted until members of the Building Commission’s Higher Education Subcommittee began filing in. At one point, as Altenburg tried to speak, Jauch yelled, “Stop!” and left the room.

Sen. Jeff Plale, D-Milwaukee, introduced an amendment that would have barred Marshfield from using any of the state’s $10 million toward developing a dental school.

But Gov. Jim Doyle said such an amendment would be rewriting the legislation he signed earlier this year.

“The law was passed, (Marshfield) secured the funding, they are delivering,” Doyle said. “These people are actually going out and providing dental services, which is what’s so badly needed.”

Doyle said Marquette and Marshfield need to work together and realize Marshfield is unlikely to have an accredited dental school in the near future.

“There are a lot of legislative bodies that are going to have a say on that,” he said, “before any of this can happen.”

Sharlene Kreitlow, the wife of Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, the chairman of the Administrative Affairs Subcommittee, serves on Marshfield’s board of directors. Sen. Kreitlow, who voted to award the $10 million to Marshfield, said he hopes the organization and the university can work out their differences.

“There have been some bad feelings or disagreements,” Sen. Kreitlow said. “Down the road, that relationship does have great potential. We have two strong players on rural dental health if they do decide to work together.”

Altenburg, though, said Marshfield backed Marquette into a corner and has yet to contact the university regarding collaboration.

“It’s very difficult for us to have to do this in the public forum at the 11th hour,” she said. “It’s very disappointing.”

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