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The University of Utah has received a $30 million gift to build the state's first school of dentistry, but officials are hesitant to try to build a program without a financial commitment from the state.
Meanwhile, some dentists question the need since Utah currently enjoys a surplus of dentists.
U. officials, who declined to name the donor, say it would cost the state about $2 million a year to sustain a worthy program, a tough prospect since the Legislature is bent on slashing another 5 percent from higher education spending. The possibility of securing such funding is so remote that officials seemed loath to even ask when they appeared last week before a legislative appropriations subcommittee.
But that didn't keep curious lawmakers from probing U. President Michael Young about the possibility of a new dental school. Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget authorizes the use of up to $37 million in "institutional" funds to build the school, but would not release state money to run it.
Young cautioned lawmakers that the U. would not host anything less than a top-flight educational and research facility, at least while he is president of the state's flagship institution.
"We wouldn't want to start a second-rate school. It would need to be integrated into the research mission of the university," Young said. "I don't intend to start a dental school without collaboration with the state."
A gift of this magnitude is usually announced with much fanfare, which happened last week when Utah State University won the Swaner Preserve and earlier when the Skaggs family donated a comparable sum for the U.'s proposed College of Pharmacy expansion. But officials are playing the dental school gift close to the vest while arrangements for a future program are sorted out.
"There is no ambivalence, but there are financial realities," U. lobbyist Kim Wirthlin said. "We can't begin a new school without commensurate funding from the state."
They have sent a proposal for a 70,000-square-foot building to the state Building Board with two potential sites identified. One is on the upper campus just south of the Eccles Health Sciences Education building and the other is in Research Park east of the Orthopedic Center.
Utah isn't the only Intermountain state without a dental school. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have none, while Nevada recently launched its first.
The Utah Dental Association would like to see the school built, but endorses Young's caveats.
Utah does not lack dentists, as is the case with pharmacists, nurses, primary-care physicians and other health-care professions.
With the state awash in dentists, particularly in amenities-rich locations like St. George and Park City, some UDA members don't see the point of a new dentistry program, said UDA executive director Monte Thompson.
Not only does Utah have more dentists per capita than most other states, but Utah residents tend to spend less on their teeth. This makes it hard for young dentists to set up in Utah. That might change in the coming years when baby boom-era dentists retire in droves, Thompson said.
Utah residents rack up $300,000 in debt in four-year dental programs in other states. To ease the pain, the U. has a long-standing arrangement with Creighton University, a private school in Nebraska. Utah dental students take their first year at the U. medical school, then complete the last three years in Omaha.
They pay Creighton tuition, but are reimbursed $18,000 a year if they practice in Utah. Ten students enter this program each year, and another 10 enter a similar reimbursement program in which they study dentistry at the college of their choice.
The University of Utah has been given $30 million to establish a dental school but officials want assurances of continued state funding, which could amounts to $2 million per year.