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The Telephone Game
How two Aggie veterinarians convinced the state’s budget hawk to fund a pricey new hospital
by Coleman Cornelius | Photograph by William A. Cotton
It was 1975, and Dr. Bill Tietz was not prepared for the politicking, persuasion, and outright pleading needed to build a $10.3 million Veterinary Teaching Hospital that would help vault Colorado State’s veterinary program – and the research University as a whole – to the nation’s top tier.
“It’s true. By the time we were done, my jeans were worn through from kneeling before the gods,” Tietz, now 90 and living in Bozeman, Mont., remembered. “It was a new level of politics for us.”
Tietz was a CSU physiology professor promoted through the ranks to dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He had earned a veterinary degree at CSU in 1957 after an early career as a zoologist who studied metabolism by measuring oxygen use in mice, lemmings, shrews, and weasels plucked from Arctic snow.
Now he faced legendary state Sen.Joe Shoemaker, Republican chairman of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee. Shoemaker, who held the state’s purse strings, was skeptical of every aspect of the planned animal hospital that would be the only facility of its kind in the Mountain West and the most expensive academic building at CSU to that point, according to University historians.
Tietz and his right-hand man, Dr. Jim Voss, head of the Department of Clinical Sciences and the new hospital’s chief designer, were summoned to a budget hearing at the state Capitol to answer a barrage of questions. How many students would be served, and from where? What was the new hospital’s clinical capacity and anticipated patient load? How would its research contribute to the state’s economy and to medical knowledge broadly? Why did Colorado need a leading-edge veterinary hospital plopped in a dusty cornfield off the virtually untraveled northern reaches of Interstate 25?
“Shoemaker listened to us, then he looked at me and said, ‘I want to talk to Washington to get the straight scoop,’” Tietz recalled.
The federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, planned to fund about half the hospital’s construction. That was, in part, because the nation’s leading health officials were worried about the potential for nuclear calamity during the Cold War era that ran through the 1970s; they had identified veterinary hospitals as a potential front line in providing emergency medical services for human patients. After all, Tietz noted, veterinary hospitals are staffed with experts, are equipped with drugs and emergency supplies, and offer sterile conditions – the basics needed in a medical disaster.
Under CSU’s proposal, the state of Colorado would pay about one-fourth of the hospital’s construction costs. The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education would pay the remaining one-fourth, in keeping with its goal of ensuring first-rate veterinary training at CSU for qualified students from Western states that did not have teaching hospitals.
Even though the state of Colorado would pay just a portion of the hospital’s total price tag, Shoemaker sought to slash the budget in half.
Tietz and Voss knew they had to convey their facts and rationale during Shoemaker’s call to a top official at the NIH in Washington. But how?
“We pulled into a gas station while driving home to Fort Collins from the budget hearing, and we had our plan,” Tietz said. “If the budget committee was going to play that game with us, we wanted to make sure Shoemaker got the right story from the feds.”
At 6 o’clock the next morning, Tietz and Voss were back in Denver – at the office of a locally based NIH colleague. She called her boss at NIH headquarters to provide critical information about the proposed new veterinary hospital; coincidentally – or not – it was just as he got the call from Shoemaker asking questions about the facility. A relay commenced, though only three of the five players knew it. Shoemaker asked the NIH boss a question; he posed it on a separate phone line to his underling in Denver; she repeated the question aloud; Tietz and Voss heard it and quickly conferred; Voss wrote their answer on a chalkboard in the woman’s office; she then provided the answer to her NIH boss; he, in turn, fed the information back to Shoemaker, who had been holding on a different phone line.
“A little later that morning, we were back in the hearing room with Shoemaker and the Joint Budget Committee. He told us, ‘I talked to Washington, and they validated what you said,’” Tietz recalled with a delighted laugh. “I thought, ‘Oh, you don’t say.’
“It was the end of a long battle,” he continued. “We didn’t want to mislead anyone during that phone call, but we had to get our message across. We knew how important a modern facility was for medicine and its future. To keep pace, we absolutely had to have a modern facility. On the teaching side, the fact that we were serving students from several states through the WICHE program made it all the more important.”
Convincing the state’s budgetary bigwigs entailed another major challenge. Tietz and his colleagues went through tedious number-crunching and tough deliberations with officials at WICHE and its member states to persuade them that the cost of delivering a veterinary education at CSU was about three times more than the states had theretofore paid.
That increased revenue was crucial for construction, noted Dr. Bob Phemister, who followed Tietz as dean of the veterinary college.
“The hospital was an extremely contentious proposal, because money was always in short supply, and the state legislature was very refractory to the idea. The heavy lifting was done by Bill, with Jim’s help,” said Phemister, who was an associate dean during the deal-making.
“The two of them spent an enormous amount of time trying to answer the questions – the endless questions – that the Joint Budget Committee had as to why it should build a hospital in the first place. They patiently explained and ultimately sold the idea of the shared funding of the hospital, where the federal government would pick up approximately half and the second half would be split approximately in half by the state of Colorado and the participating WICHE states.
By pooling resources, we were able to finally get the Colorado legislature to come up with the funding for the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.”
Phemister had a second-row view as Tietz led the wrangling. “Bill was a very charismatic individual, and he was at the top of his game,” he said.
The hospital opened off Drake Road in January 1979, replacing the cramped and outdated Glover Veterinary Hospital near the Oval. Later named the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, for its designer and first leader, the facility now handles more than 40,000 patient visits annually. Each year, nearly 300 veterinary students from across the country train with top faculty at the hospital; indeed, the facility is home base for CSU’s veterinary school, which ranks No. 3 in the nation. Also at the hospital, faculty conduct research in specialty fields, such as cancer and cardiology, to improve medical care for animals and people.
With the funding success, Tietz concluded six years as veterinary dean at CSU and went on to serve as president of Montana State University from 1977 to 1990. Voss followed Phemister as CSU veterinary dean from 1986 until his retirement in 2001.
“It was a struggle to build the hospital,” Tietz said, “and I’m very glad we pulled it off.”