Salus University - 10 Years of Living Up to its Name
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Salus University - 10 Years of Living Up to its Name

by Anthony F. Di Stefano, OD ’73, MPH, MEd

Salus faculty, staff and students throwing beach balls and holding "10" balloonsShakespeare knew the power and magic of words. He understood that within each word, each name, there lies a story, a symbol, a deeper meaning that touches our senses, our intellect and our heart. The choice of Salus as the name of our academic home in 2008 reflected a historical moment in our evolution. In order to appreciate that moment, a journey back in historical consciousness, not to live there, but to again feel, smell and experience the texture of our institutional history and how those aspirations gave birth to who we are today is important. 


The founding of the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO) in 1919 was led by its first president,  Albert Fitch. Fitch understood that the transformation of the profession of optometry from opticianry would have to be built on an understanding of the needs of the public for quality vision  care and the absolute importance of a proper educational foundation. As such, Fitch postulated that “A proper college of optometry must compare with any of the colleges of the other health professions, such as medicine and dentistry, and be on a par with the best of them.” Biomedical sciences formed a distinctive academic and clinical foundation of the curriculum, in contrast to other programs which gave almost exclusive emphasis to visual science. Bringing the strength of the biomedical sciences together with the foundational visual sciences propelled the institution to become the first program to award a legislature-approved Doctor of Optometry Degree in 1923. 

Fitch’s progressive ideals led to the 1937 introduction of Pennsylvania State House Bill No. 1119, which would have ranted optometrists full privileges to diagnose and treat eye diseases. While it fell one vote short because of political deception, it was the catalyst for the transformation of optometry to the full scope primary eye care profession it enjoys today. Fitch’s drive, boldness and spirit became the defining character of the institution. This root belief in the necessity to grow, to go beyond the norms of the day, to look beyond oneself and aspire to be more and do more, ultimately led to the decades of leadership the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry and then the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), which it became in 1964, played in curricular innovation, political action and clinical expansion. 

This spirit of leadership led to a number of firsts such as the development of a comprehensive interdisciplinary clinical facility, The Eye Institute, for education and patient care; the 

first school or college of optometry to develop a comprehensive, off-campus externship program; the first to establish graduate programs in the fields of blindness and visual impairment; the first to launch international programs to advance optometry worldwide; and the first college of optometry to expand its offerings beyond its core program and initially included audiology and physician assistant studies. Today, the institution has four doctoral level programs and eleven master’s level graduate and professional degree programs including occupational therapy, public health, biomedicine and speech-language pathology. In addition, the institution has wide-ranging research initiatives and expanding clinical services, which currently also include the Pennsylvania Ear Institute and Speech-Language Institute.

By the early 21st century, the continued growth and diversification of educational programs led the Board of Trustees to ultimately approve seeking University status as the appropriate new foundation for the institution. On January 31, 2008, PCO received official notice it had been granted University status by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. On July 1, 2008, the institution officially changed its name and status to Salus University. That nearly 90-year journey was defined by an enduring commitment and a refusal to accept the status quo in addition to the realization that the University’s future was rooted in the spirit that gave birth to its founding. Grasping this founding spirit gives us continued purpose. On July 1, 2018, Salus University will celebrate its tenth anniversary.


Salus University campusNotwithstanding the unique accomplishments of the institution during its first 90 years, the institution became increasingly and acutely aware of the significant internal and external challenges it must address as a private independent institution in the 21st century. The diversification of its programs continually challenged its identity and demanded greater clarity in its mission and vision. 

As a result, a comparison of our mission statements over the past 25 years communicates our story of growth and evolution. The mission of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry incrementally evolved from “graduating doctors of optometry…” to “educating healthcare professionals and educators…” In 2010, the University’s mission moved from being discipline-centered to patient-centered. This shift was profound in as much as it put the emphasis on our ultimate purpose and less on the means of getting there. 

Today, the mission of “advancing integrated healthcare through innovative education, research and clinical services” solidifies and further enhances the initial foundation. The new University mission provides a broad platform for growth, affirming the essence of its name, Salus, the Latin term for health and wellbeing. It is holistic and underscores the interdependent goals of education, research and patient care. Very importantly, it extends the University‘s reach and impact to the global community. In a very real way, our name is our mission.


The change in name to Salus (a story in itself) brings with it fascinating history, etymology and mythology — all providing a deeper and richer insight into who we are and who we can become. Salus was the name of a Roman goddess and was an enduring image throughout the Roman Empire. She was often depicted on the reverse side of many Roman coins. She was the protector and symbolized health, well-being, welfare and security. Most interestingly, she was the protectorate of both the individual and the public across the Roman Empire — Salus Publica Populi Romani.  

If we dig deeper literally, we find that the root of Salus is even more historically and etymologically fascinating (and relevant to our mission). The root of the word Salus is the same as that of salt. For centuries, nations fought over salt for its commercial, religious and life-sustaining value. We crave salt because of its importance to the health of our bodies, the Himalayan salt crystal is known for its healing power, and everyone has been exposed to the magical properties of salt for cleansing, purification and protection. Our language is filled with salt idioms, underscoring its ubiquitous significance: “salt of the earth,” “salting something away,” “worth his salt,” and “sending him back to the salt mines,” etc.

So, what’s in a name? The University name Salus provides a sharp focusfor our overarching purpose. It is defining and aspirational. It bridges our past historical evolution with our future direction.


Our first decade as a University has been marked by growth. Since its inception in 2008, the University has added programs in public health (2010), biomedicine (2011), occupational therapy (2012) and speech-language pathology (2015) to our existing strengths in optometry (1919), blindness and low vision studies (1983), audiology (2000) and physician assistant studies (2007). With this programmatic growth, our enrollment has increased from  1,045 in fall 2010 to 1,214 in fall 2017. 

We have undergone significant facilities improvements and expansions, including:

  • More than $11 million investement for the renovation of The Eye Institute (TEI), the main clinical training facility for optometry students completed in 2012. The renovation included an expansion of 14,000 square feet to the building’s lower level and the integration of new and state-of-the-art ophthalmic equipment and electronic medical records. The final phase of the renovation of TEI became a reality in 2017 when CityLife Neighborhood Clinics established a primary care medical practice on the upper level to better serve the Oak Lane community’s needs. 
  • In 2017, the library was transformed into a Learning Resource Center that currently serves as the main focal point of our Elkins Park campus
  • Another transformative renovation that occurred in 2017 was the redesign and expansion of the Clinical Skills Laboratory for the Optometry program. Long overdue, this renovation not only provided additional study and practice space for students but the adjacent virtual reality lab will also significantly enrich an optometry student’s ability to master important clinical skills prior to graduation and practice. 

Our last decade of institutional evolution has also been characterized by integration at the curricular, service delivery, and strategic levels. Inter- professional education (IPE) has been a natural outgrowth of curricular and service delivery integration at Salus. IPE represents a commitment to our students’ future, as they are functioning within an integrated healthcare system that embraces medical home models, team-based group practice, in addition to coordinated care. 

Student studying in the libraryThe next ten years of the University’s evolution will undoubtedly bring forth both challenges and opportunities as does any evolution. The University’s historical commitment is to go above and beyond the norms of the day, to look beyond itself and to aspire to be more and to do more. We will ultimately continue to play a leadership role in curricular innovation, political action, and clinical expansion in the decades ahead. These commitments will be embraced as we consider new programs and strategic relationships that contribute to the realization of our mission of “advancing integrated healthcare through innovative education, research, and clinical services.” Tomorrow’s health care system will include profound changes in biomedicine, information technology and artificial intelligence, cost and organizational shifts, and public needs and expectations. This transformation will demand that Salus seize this opportunity and responsibility for continued leadership. Tomorrow’s health care will never be the same.

So, what’s in a name? Salus gives us perspective, purpose and potential. It tells a story of our past, present and future. It symbolizes health and wellbeing at individual, community and organizational levels. Ultimately, it will challenge us to realize that our mission is life-affirming as we complete our circle. To quote T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”