Look How Far We've Come: (and How We Got Started)

Celebrating the History of the Graduate School of Nursing, 1985 - 2010

Founding the UMass-Worcester Graduate School of Nursing

By Ellen More, PhD

Taken from the SoutteReview, Issue 35, the seasonal publication of the Lamar Soutter Library at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Background: 1965-1985

Twenty-five years ago, in 1985, the Graduate School of Nursing was established at the University of Massachusetts-Worcester. The first class matriculated in September, 1986. The idea for a nursing program was first mentioned in 1965 by UM-W's founding dean Dr. Lamar Soutter, whose vision of a multi-disciplinary health sciences campus included schools of nursing, dentistry, and even veterinary medicine. But in 1965 the professional climate for nursing differed greatly from what has emerged in the decades since then. Dean Soutter anticipated only a four-year undergraduate program for nurses.

Seal of the Graduate School of Nursing

Nursing, at the time, was structured mainly to support the physician's goals, with far less of the professional autonomy and diagnostic skills we associate with nursing today. Nationally and regionally, however, the need to advance nursing professionalism was beginning to be acknowledged, for example in the influential Lysaught Commission Report of 1970. Leaders in academic nursing, such as Dean Loretta Ford at the University of Rochester began advocating for a new model of advanced practice nursing, specifically the "nurse practitioner." New master's programs for nurses would be necessary to carry out these goals. By the time UMass opened its University Hospital in 1976, these educational trends had become compelling.

The direct impetus for a graduate school of nursing at UMass, however, came from within University Hospital a few years after its opening in 1976. Gail Frieswick, Ed.D. (UMMC Nursing Administrator, later CEO), and Anne Bourgeois, Ed.D. (Associate Administrator, later CNO and University campus President) realized that patient care would benefit from encouraging nurses in central Massachusetts, and especially those already working at UMass, to pursue an advanced nursing practice degree. It was hoped, too, that Master's prepared nurses could bring the latest skills in community nursing out to regional population centers. This view was shared by the UM-W Health Sciences Task Force, which issued a report in 1980 that cited graduate nursing education as a high priority for new programs on the campus.

Kathleen Dirschel was the first dean of the UMASS GSN

Working with consultants such as Lillian Goodman, Ed.D., then Chair of the Department of Nursing at Worcester State College, and nursing leaders from Yale, Case Western, UMass-Amherst and other institutions, Frieswick worked assiduously to persuade a hesitant UMMC leadership and UMass Board of Trustees to establish the school. Bourgeois concentrated on easing the doubts of the nursing staff by explaining the potential benefits of moving beyond a diploma-school preparation. Physicians, too, had to be reassured that advanced practice nursing would be beneficial to the overall system of care. Finally in 1983 the Board voted to establish a Master's program for nurses at UM-W, and (just in time) amended their vote on July 16, 1986 to substitute the word "School" for "program."

Two additional years passed between the 1983 vote and the actual commitment of funds for space, recruitment of faculty, students, staff, and equipment. After a national search, in which Chancellor Robert Tranquada, Frieswick, Bourgeois, Goodman and chairs of the major clinical departments participated, Kathleen J. Dirschel, Ph. D. was named the first Dean of the GSN. Dr. Dirschel, the Dean of Nursing at Seton Hall University, had recently completed a program in Academic Administration at Harvard. At that juncture, the prospect of founding a completely new school at UM-W was too interesting, too challenging, to turn down. She was appointed in June, 1985, and the planning process began in earnest.

Growing the GSN: 1985-2010

Planning the Curriculum

Founding Dean Kathy Dirschel learned quickly that there are two sides to the coin of a brand new school. On the one hand, she found a deep reservoir of good will and pride that UMass would be starting a graduate school of nursing, the first in the UMass system; on the other hand, "When I got to UMass, the tiny little space they carved out [for the GSN] was kind of like a locker room; it had no furniture. We had to rent furniture!" But, the opportunities seemed endless. Soon the first new faculty member, Dr. Sue Roberts, was hired and they began planning the curriculum. As Dr. Roberts commented, "We had a blank slate—what do you want to do and how do you want to do it?" The first faculty, including Drs. Susan Chase, Glenys Hamilton, Carolyn Lawless, Diane Skiba, Roberts, Bourgeois, and Dirschel, developed a Master's in Nursing Science curriculum for advanced practice nurses with majors in Acute Care Nurse Clinical Specialist, Nurse Administrator (a joint MSN/MBA with Clark University), and Ambulatory Clinical Nurse Specialist.

The First Graduation

In 1986, the first class of 30 students matriculated. The first graduation, for the 13 students in the accelerated, one-year program, was held in the Lamar Soutter Library in the spring of 1987. As retired Professor and Associate Dean Mary K. Alexander told me, "We took only the best students." One year later, the National League for Nursing awarded the GSN full accreditation for 8 years.

In 1991, Lillian Goodman became the interim dean, and in 1995 was made permanent Dean of the school, continuing in that role until her retirement in 2000. Many new programs were developed over the following nine years. As a small faculty in its first few years, Dr. Alexander pointed out, they could react quickly to changing needs; they could "turn on a dime!" For example, the Acute Care Clinical Specialist track was revised as a major in Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. Dr. Alexander remembered, "We created a program for acute care nurse practitioners in 3 months!" Subspecialties in HIV/AIDs, Cardiac and Geriatric Nursing and Cancer Prevention were also initiated during Lillian Goodman's deanship. In keeping with the GSN's ambitious program of nursing research development, the school also launched the first doctoral program in Nursing in collaboration with the nursing school at UMass-Amherst.

Students in class, picture of teacher

When Dean Doreen Harper succeeded Goodman in 2000, she was fortunate in having both the Master's and Doctoral programs well under way at the GSN. But, additional pathways remained o be cultivated. Two of these, the Worcester Nursing Pipeline Consortium and the Graduate Entry Pathway, responded to an acute shortage of nurses during the 1990s. As Dr. Harper commented, "Anne Bourgeois helped me understand how we could be more in sync with the clinical system ... at the bedside. We had to have a pre-licensure program ... We were in a nursing shortage. We needed to ramp up the production of nurses [yet] we didn't produce what most hospitals wanted—RNs." Today, she continued, programs like the Graduate Entry Pathway (GEP) are the "fastest growing cohort" in the profession. An independent Ph.D. program was approved during her deanship and begun in 2005, the year Dr. Paulette Seymour-Route, a GSN graduate, was named interim dean.

Students learning

Under Dr. Seymour-Route's leadership, the GSN has again responded to changing health care needs by establishing a D.N.P. program, a Doctorate of Nursing Practice. The school also has moved far ahead in research activity and funding. Today, in the Dean's words, the GSN has "numerous faculty who are continuing the model first started well before us of working on the clinical side and the academic side. Out of 25 full time faculty, we have three who have federally funded grants," including one for $3 million from HRSA.

But, we'll conclude with words from Dean Emeritus Goodman, spoken on the occasion of the school's 20th anniversary in 2005: "The practice of nursing has changed. The advanced practice nurses, teachers and researchers who will guide these changes must be rigorously prepared in nursing programs of high academic quality ... Our programs of study are designed to sharpen analytic skills, stimulate scientific inquiry and develop effective practice methods through which compassion and caring will flourish."


  1. Oral History interviews: Mary K. Alexander; Carol Bova; Anne Bourgeois; Karen Coteleso; Gail Frieswick; E. Colleen Fritsche; Lillian Goodman; Doreen Harper; Margalit Lai; Susan Roberts.
  2. Kimberly S. Newton, "UMass Opening New Graduate Nursing School," Worcester Telegram, August 25, 1986, Newsclippings Collection, UMass-Worcester Archives [hereafter, UM/W].
  3. Kathleen M. Dirschel, "Memorandum," August 17, 1987, in Kathleen M. Dirschel Papers, UM/W.
  4. "A Tradition in Leadership for a Future of Caring: 20th Anniversary Perspective" UMass Graduate School of Nursing, 1985, 29pp., in GSN Collection, UM/W.
  5. Audio Recording, American Archives Month event, "Look How Far We've Come (and How We Got Started), Celebrating the History of the Graduate School of Nursing," October 19, 2010, GSN Collection, UM/W.
  6. George Dirschel, Video Recording "UMass Nurse School, 25th Anniversary" [American Archives Month event, "Look How Far We've Come (and How We Got Started), Celebrating the History of the Graduate School of Nursing"], October 19, 2010, GSN Collection, UM/W.
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