For more than three decades, Michael Carter has helped shape nursing education at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. In doing so, he has also been a major influence on the profession in Memphis, across Tennessee, nationally, and globally.
Formerly dean of the UTHSC College of Nursing and now University Distinguished Professor of Nursing, he retires today, ending a career that has seen the profession change in many ways, while remaining true to its origins.
“There are some things that stay true, and some things change,” he said. “The things that stay true are that nurses are still the ones who have committed to caring for patients wherever those patients are and whenever it is. What has changed is science has really exploded our knowledge base and the way we practice.”
With his impressive credentials — DNSc, DNP, FAAN, FNP/GNP-BC — he knows what he’s talking about.
Dr. Carter grew up on a farm in Missouri. “I had a commitment to provide some service,” he said. “I was going to either care for people or plants or animals.” He chose nursing, he said, because he “was trying desperately to escape the farm.”
He received his BSN in 1969 from the University of Arkansas, his MNSc in family nursing in 1973, and became an instructor there. From 1975-1976, Dr. Carter was an assistant professor at Boston University School of Nursing, and moved to the University of Colorado School of Nursing in 1976, serving until 1982 as an assistant professor, an associate professor, and chair of the Medical-Surgical Department. He received his DNSc from Boston University in 1979.
He was recruited to UTHSC in 1982 by then-Chancellor James Hunt to lead the College of Nursing. “He came to Denver three times to get me to consider the position here,” Dr. Carter said. “We came, and we dearly love Tennessee.” He held the position until 2000, and received his DNP from UTHSC in 2009.
Shortly after arriving, Dr. Carter and his wife, Sarah Carter, MD, decided they needed to know more about their adopted state. They traveled across Tennessee, learning how the college could best serve statewide needs.
He began developing the college’s clinical affiliations to meet the growing demand for more expertise in nursing clinical practice.
“The whole world of primary care was changing, and the need for us to develop clinical experts had been pushed really hard,” Dr. Carter said. “We had to rapidly grow the graduate program, we had to build and negotiate and put together the new PhD program, and we had to build a very robust faculty practice program. We got a lot of recognition for that.” The college was recognized as the top program in the country for faculty practice in nursing.
The college also grew its research enterprise. “At one time, we were No. 16 in the nation for NIH funding in nursing,” he said.
He helmed development of the college’s distance learning component.
“Our idea was that our focus was the state of Tennessee, so we had to alter the way we did education,” he said. “Today, we call it distance programs. We started with some creative things. We had speaker phones and fax machines. Students would gather in places like Knoxville, so they could attend classes without driving to Memphis.”
Next, distance classes were taught by two-way television. “This was all before the internet,” he said. “So, then the internet came, and we’ve built our educational programs to ensure that if you happen to live anywhere in Tennessee you can attend our graduate programs, most of them, and you can remain in your community. That really helped change the distribution of nurse practitioners throughout the state. “
He is proud that in 1999, the college launched the first clinical doctorate, a predecessor of the doctorate of nursing practice degree that became the new standard for the nation. “And it all started right there with us,” he said.
“A visionary,” is how UTHSC Professor Mona Wicks, PhD, RN, FAAN, described Dr. Carter. “He’s not afraid to take risks.”
Sylvia Anderson Price, BSN, MPH, PhD, professor emeritus in the UTHSC College of Nursing, simply called him her dear friend. She met Dr. Carter when she interviewed him for a study on the role of the nurse. He later recruited her to teach nursing administration in his distance education program. She taught in the program for 10 years, coming to Memphis periodically, and staying at his home. “Michael is a wonderful, caring colleague and friend,” she said.
Since stepping down as dean, Dr. Carter has continued to be a strong influence in the college, as well as a stellar representative of the university and his profession.
In 2015, The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties awarded Dr. Carter its Lifetime Achievement Award for decades of advocating for increased access and opportunities for nurse practitioners.
Dr. Carter’s work extends beyond the United States. He was invited to travel to the city of Perth in Western Australia to establish primary care nurse practitioner clinics to help deliver health care to isolated regions.
His influence reaches even further through his many students. “I can count among the students I’ve worked with, at least three who are university presidents, about 10 and probably more who are deans of nursing, and that doesn’t count the hundreds of individuals, who every day are providing care to people who need it, that I think I’ve had something to say about encouraging them along and pushing them a little harder down the road.”
Wendy Likes, PhD, DNSc, APRN-Bc, FAANP, dean of the UTHSC College of Nursing, said Dr. Carter has had an amazing career. “Dr. Carter has been a powerful influence on so many of us as professionals and on our profession,” she said. “It is difficult to put into words the appreciation and respect we all have for Dr. Carter. We will all miss working side by side with Dr. Carter, but we take comfort in knowing he supports us, and will always be here for us.”
The Carters are moving to New Orleans to be closer to their daughter. They will be busy building a home in the Lower Garden District, but he offered a promise. “I will be available for anyone who wants to tap my memory on things.”