Vernice D. Ferguson


Honorary Degree (1993)
Doctor of Science
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: Thomas Ehrlich


Vernice Ferguson is nationally and internationally known for her leadership role in fostering excellence in nursing care and in the nursing profession. As director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Nursing Service and deputy assistant chief medical director for nursing programs from 1980 through 1992, she led the nation's largest staff of nurses, more than 63,000 personnel serving in 172 medical centers, 126 nursing home care units, 233 outpatient clinics, and 35 domiciliaries.

Ms. Ferguson, who received her baccalaureate in 1950 from Bellevue Medical Center at New York University, began her nursing career as head nurse of the Neoplastic Metabolic Research Unit at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Being a member of a research team stimulated her respect for the value of nursing research and opened a new direction in her professional development. In 1957, she completed a master's degree in health education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Throughout her career, she has been a role model for nurses at every level of the profession, whether practitioners, administrators, or researchers. Exemplifying the highest ideals of nursing, she has increased awareness of the vital role nurses play in health care research and policy making, and thereby contributed enormously to the greater prominence of nurses as leaders in the health care community. One of Ms. Ferguson's more important initiatives at the Veterans Administration has been supporting continuing education for nurses in the system, with special emphasis on the executive development of chief nurses.

As the chief nurse in the Veterans Administration- despite severe financial constraints and a nationwide shortage of nurses- she set up nursing research programs and was instrumental in establishing the Veterans Administration Health Professional Scholarship Program, which proved crucial to recruiting and retaining qualified nurses in the system. Concerned about ways to inspire caregivers, she helped create the Secretary of Health and Human Services' Annual Award for Excellence in Nursing.

She also encouraged closer ties between universities and the Veterans Administration, including a partnership between Indiana University's School of Nursing and VA medical centers in Indianapolis and Louisville. The building of the Sigma Theta Tau Center for Nursing Scholarship on the IUPUI campus owes much to her as well. As president of Sigma Theta Tau International, Ms. Ferguson articulated the cause so eloquently that more than 16,000 nurses were motivated to contribute to the project, representing more than half the total fundraising goal.

Ms. Ferguson served as president of Sigma Theta Tau International from 1985 to 1987. Formerly, she had been president of the prestigious American Academy of Nursing. In 1992, she received the nursing profession's "triple crown" when she was named president of the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care. She is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom, the second American nurse to receive this honor.

A much sought-after speaker, Ms. Ferguson is legendary for presentations that are both imaginative and challenging. As a frequent contributor to research journals, she recognizes the need for nurses to interact with many publics and encourages her colleagues to be actively involved in community and professional organizations. She was recently profiled as one of five contemporary pacesetters of the nursing profession in Leadership for Change: An Action Guide for Nurses.

Her teaching appointments have included the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Illinois, Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland, and she is now on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. She has received honorary doctorates from six institutions.

Vernice Ferguson successfully integrates the many faces of the nursing profession. Truly a devoted public servant and a woman of vision, she has inspired a generation of nurses. In her inaugural message to Sigma Theta Tau in 1985, she urged her colleagues to develop their own roles as mentors: "Tip the scale in favor of the budding young researchers, educators, administrators, and entrepreneurs, for they will provide the scholarly leadership for the profession and health care in the years to come."