One of the top officials at the College of the North Atlantic is defending not alerting students that its respiratory therapy program was on probation — while attributing at least some of the blame for the now-suspended program to "decades of neglect" at the institution.

"It's extremely unfortunate and distressing," says Bill Radford, CNA's senior academic vice-president. 

"But everyone needs to understand, I think, that this is not immediate. This has to do with decades of neglect at the college at a number of levels."

'We can't produce a cobbled band-aid solution ... Therefore we will take our time.' - Bill Radford, CNA's senior academic vice-president

The Council on Accreditation for Respiratory Therapy Education placed the CNA program on a one-year probation in 2016.

Nearly 40 students are in limbo now that it has been suspended.

"I think it was the epitome of unprofessional. They put out a press release before they notified any of us," said Heather White, who has just finished the first year of the three-year-program.

Heather White

Heather White is in limbo after completing one year of the three-year respiratory therapy program. (CBC)

White and others are also angry that they weren't told the program was on probation when they enrolled.

"They were deceitful in that they didn't give us the information that we needed to make an informed decision about where we should be doing our education," she said.

But Radford dismissed that concern.

"It wouldn't be material to students to know that it was probationary," he told CBC News Thursday.

'Seeking solutions' for students

Radford said the administration's focus now is those students currently enrolled in the program. 

"We have an obligation to find any which way that we can to continue to serve them and have them write the national [licensing] exam," he said. 

What happens to the students who have some of the program completed if that isn't permitted?

"I don't even want to entertain that possibility right now. My hope is that we will be able to find a resolution," Radford said.

What went wrong? 

The Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists said it is the first time it has pulled accreditation from a training program.

"It is not done lightly," said executive director Christianne Menard. "There were significant issues."

When asked why the CNA program didn't meet the standards for accreditation, Radford said "there are a number of items," but wouldn't elaborate.

"The body who does the accreditation process has a methodology that is extremely rigorous and extremely detailed, so it would be wrong of me to sort of gloss over that," he said. 

Respiratory therapists

Respiratory therapists work with people who have breathing problems and chronic illnesses such as asthma. (CBC)

Radford said the modernization plan released by the college and Newfoundland and Labrador government in April, detailed several major problems with the institution, including a lack of financial and academic planning as well as accountability issues.

"It points out a lot of systemic deficits that have been decades in the making ... [The suspension] has as much to do with the organizational deficits at CNA as it does to do with anything specific to this program," he said, referencing proper documentation as one issue.

Radford wouldn't say whether he expected the program to bounce back, insisting the priority is the students already in the program — 26 have completed one or two years of study. 

"We recognize the accreditation report, we take it extremely seriously. We know that we can't produce a cobbled band-aid solution ... Therefore we will take our time and due diligence in having an external review of the program and rebuilding it," he said. 

Heather White is holding her breath and considering her options.

"I may look into nursing but it's not the field I wanted. I wanted to be a respiratory therapist."

With files from Marilyn Boone and Avneet Dhillon