(This is the first of a two-part story on the history of the Osborne College of Audiology as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Look for Part II online in the fall and in the fall issue of the Alumni Magazine.)

The American Academy of Audiology (AAA) wanted to move audiology as a profession in the direction of offering a doctorate level program. That thought process started in the late 1980s and continued to percolate until the late 1990s. And, the movement had one vocal and enthusiastic supporter in Dr. George S. Osborne.

George Osborne headshotThe Academy of Dispensing Audiologists (ADA) had given birth to the Doctor of Audiology (AuD) degree at its 1988 education conference in Chicago and had added an “Audiology Awareness Campaign” to its endeavor. This, and several other national initiatives, encouraged Dr. Osborne to find an appropriate academic setting to realize the goal. There was only one problem – and it was a substantial one: as a whole, the profession of audiology wasn’t ready to go along with that notion. The audiology profession was slowly coming around to the realization that the two-year master’s degree program was no longer adequate to prepare students for the wide array of services they would be required to provide.

The ultimate goal was to establish a professional school degree program and optometry – and specifically the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) – was an ideal model on which to build.

“They had looked around at different health professions and they felt if they mimicked optometry, it would be the most effective way of moving from a master’s to a doctorate program,” said Thomas Lewis, OD ‘70, PhD, FAAO, president of PCO and later Salus University from 1989 to 2008.

Tom LewisSo Dr. Osborne and his colleague, Dr. David Goldstein, visited with Dr. Lewis and made their pitch – why they wanted to do this, and why they had come to PCO to be a leader in helping them make this transition in audiology.

“Dr. Osborne indicated he had originally approached the Indiana University (IU) School of Optometry and they said we’re a state university, we work under a lot more constraints than the private schools do and it would probably be a lengthy process if at all possible to even consider starting an AuD program,” said Dr. Lewis. “IU officials suggested that they talk to me at PCO because we were a lot more entrepreneurial than the university-based schools.”

Dr. Lewis was intrigued by the idea. He decided to bring Anthony Di Stefano, OD ‘73, MEd, MPH, FAAO, who was then the vice president and dean of PCO, into the discussion because “he was the one who was going to have to make this happen.” Dr. Di Stefano was intrigued by the idea as well.

“We felt that it was a good match. We thought conceptually and intellectually, it made a lot of sense,” said Dr. Lewis.

Tony Di StefanoAccording to Dr. Di Stefano, Dr. Osborne shared his aspirations on why the profession of audiology needed to change, and that the future would find audiologists as being in an autonomous profession; being in a doctoring profession; being limited license practitioners; having their own professional organization; having an enriched curriculum; being a direct access for patients; and having a new professional structure.

“We then found out that there were going to be more stumbling blocks than we thought because of the historical way in which audiologists were trained,” said Dr. Lewis. “They did not have a strong biomedical science background. And, they were trained at many different locations around the country, but in very small programs. Some programs had four students, some had eight students, and some had 12, which was maybe the largest class. And, we knew that those numbers wouldn’t work for us if we had to try to create this new program.”

After much discussion, PCO realized adding an audiology doctorate program was a unique opportunity to expand. After going through a rigorous process and finally receiving approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the new degree program, PCO established the School of Audiology in 2000, a program that is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2020.
PCO would offer two AuD degree programs: first, a distance education program designed to provide qualified licensed experience practitioners non-residential access to upgrade to the AuD degree, which began in 2000; and second, a four-year post-baccalaureate residential AuD degree program that would begin in 2003.

The philosophy and academic structure of the program were modeled in many respects on other developing programs across the country. The program also provided an additional impetus for expanding and strengthening the profession’s accreditation activities.

Dr. Osborne would be the School’s founding dean, and he brought all of the essential ingredients that the program needed, according to Dr. Di Stefano.

“Having both a PhD in audiology and a DDS degree in dentistry, he brought unique clinical and academic insights to the program,” said Dr. Di Stefano. “In addition, George was an entrepreneur, having had a private practice for many years, but also appreciating that a sustainable academic program must have a strong financial underpinning. The success of the distance program provided this underpinning for the residential program. George was extremely proud of the profession’s response to the PCO distance program as it underscored the viability of the profession’s commitment to the AuD degree.”

“George was the link to how we were going to build this out,” said Dr. Lewis. “He was a superb guy. Many people don’t know he was a dentist first. He was well-educated, had a very strong background to be a dentist in biomedicine, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry. He understood the logistics that were going to be involved in creating this program. Without him, I don’t know if it would have ever happened.”

George LindleyDr. Osborne’s first hire for the new School was George Lindley, PhD, AuD ‘03. Dr. Lindley, who was working at a Lehigh Valley, Pa. based hospital at the time, and Dr. Osborne had met at a Pennsylvania state meeting in which Dr. Osborne was showcasing the distance education program.

“I introduced myself and as everyone knew, he was pretty entertaining with an infectious personality,” said Dr. Lindley. “So we got to talking and he said he’d let me know when a job was open. I was interested in coming here, so as soon as the position opened up, I applied and interviewed. I was the first faculty member in the residential program, the first faculty member present on campus in 2002.”

PCO had recently revamped its whole curriculum with a new model and it seemed to be working well, according to Dr. Lindley. “And, we thought that was the logical place to start. Indeed the first few years the audiology students took some of the foundational courses with the optometry students. But that didn’t work out. We learned that pretty quickly, mostly because the students had different backgrounds. I will say, though, our first graduates in the residential program knew more about the eye than any other audiologists out there.”

Among the initial challenges, Dr. Lindley said, was staying a year ahead of the incoming class. “The first class, when they interviewed, we basically had blueprints of the clinic to show them. The Pennsylvania Eye Institute (PEI) didn’t exist at that point. It was on paper. And, they didn’t need to see patients that first year. Keeping one step ahead of them on where they needed to be in the curriculum was challenging.”

But those early years of the program were challenging for many different reasons, according to Dr. Lewis. One was that a lot of the people in the audiology profession didn’t agree with it becoming a doctorate level program. “We were dealing with the politics of the profession of audiology. There was a lot of pushback from the other programs because they were happy with having a master’s degree and they didn’t want to have to devote more resources to shift to train doctoral level practitioners,” he said.

While Dr. Lewis was addressing the politics part of the equation – dealing with the PCO Board of Trustees, the optometry and audiology professions and funding sources – Drs. Di Stefano and Osborne were dealing with the logistics of making it happen and moving the program forward.

“Were there times where I thought this wasn’t going to happen or the experiment wasn’t going to work? Yeah, definitely,” said Dr. Lindley. “Again, when you’re working with Dr. Osborne, he’s as positive as they come. And, we had good support from Dr. Di Stefano and Dr. Lewis. How it didn’t become overwhelming was that there were only four students that first year. And, then there was seven or eight the second year. So we weren’t overwhelmed numbers-wise.”

“I think Dr. Di Stefano would say that it wouldn’t have happened without George, or someone like George, being around,” said Dr. Lewis. “George believed so strongly in what the profession of audiology needed to do that he gave up his practice and was here full-time. He was the lynchpin for making all of this happen.”

As the program grew and advanced through the early 2000s, it would be hit with a tragic and unexpected development – it lost its lynchpin.