Can you tell us the story of how you became a veterinarian?
I’ve always been interested in science, and I was always interested in animals. I grew up in in Queens, NY, and my parents never had pets. I prevailed on them to get me a hamster which I named Hamlet because that was Mr. Magoo’s hamster’s name. I loved math, I loved physics, I loved science in general, but I liked the “animalness” of biology.
I also liked the fact that there are real, living things in the world and they were furry. I used to go to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan frequently, where they have wonderful dioramas with all sorts of animals that you’d never see in New York City. Veterinarians get to deal with real animals. So, to me, that was the hook.
How did you get involved in organized veterinary medicine?
I was lucky enough when I graduated to wind up at a practice that was, in retrospect, a lot like All Creatures Great and Small. We were four veterinarians, and we talked about clients and cases at lunch time and, after work, we talked about veterinary medicine. The principal veterinarian was someone I really looked up to, and he was active in the New York State Veterinary Society. He got me writing a newsletter for him because I’m not a bad writer, and he wasn’t a good one, and that was my way in. I liked meeting more veterinarians and understanding what was going on in the profession beyond the walls of my office.
You are AVMA immediate past president, and you were president during the 150th anniversary. That is amazing. What was it like to be president during that historical moment?
It was wonderful for lots of reasons. AVMA is the biggest organization in the profession and it speaks for all of us, sometimes in ways that members don’t want us to speak for them but, almost always, in ways they do – and always in a way we think we should for the profession. Across the board, across the country and around the world AVMA is highly respected. To carry the mantle of the AVMA president to venues across the globe was really a terrific experience.
The 150th birthday was special for me because our first event was in New York City, in 1863, where forty veterinarians got together to hold a meeting. These were a very different kind of veterinarians than we are today, differently educated and serving a different function in society. But they were still focused on the developing profession and what its future was going to be. They joined together in the middle of a war and started this all. So, to have it come back full circle to a kid born in New York City, was great.
As a member of the board, can you tell us about the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative (WVLDI)?
The Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative came about because of the demographic and other generational changes that have occurred in the profession. For the past 30 years we’ve graduated more women than men from veterinary colleges; these days, almost 80 percent of veterinary students are women. And yet, women don’t hold the leadership positions across the profession they should – and that we need them to hold.
The idea is to figure out why that is and what we can do about it. It’s partly a gender issue; it’s partly a generational issue. In veterinary medicine, the two of them are so intertwined that it’s a little hard to separate them out. The bottom line is that we need more diversity in our leadership in many dimensions; we need people who reflect the actual members of the profession. The Boomers are not going to live forever, after all.
Ceva is your first industry sponsor. Can you comment about that, and what that support means to the organization?
We’re really excited for Ceva Animal Health to step forward, enthusiastically, to be our first industry sponsor. We do need support. AVMA has wisely and kindly given us both real dollars and support in kind to help get us started, but we need resources that go beyond that if we’re going to grow programs that are going to make a difference. Ceva, I think, has got the right perspective, and I’m very enthusiastic about their support.
What do you hope to achieve by being on the board of the WVLDI?
I hope that I bring both enthusiasm and energy, as well as the perspective and skills of an experienced leader. In addition, a former president of AVMA can help open a lot of doors, and I think I’m well respected in ways that will help move this important initiative forward.
Is it daunting to be a man on this board of a women’s organization?
It’s not daunting and the women are terrific. They’re all people I know, and I don’t really think of them as women as much as colleagues, but I’m aware of the gender balance nevertheless. It’s a little strange to be the man standing amongst the women leaders. I turn that around in my head to recognize that forever, even now, to be a woman in male-dominated leadership circles in the profession is the opposite of my experience here. It’s a good reminder.
You are a practice owner and you’ve said if there are not independent practice owners, it’s not good for the profession. Do you believe that most women veterinarians do not want to be practice owners? And if that is true, how do we turn that around?
It is important for the veterinarians to be practice owners, for in professions like ours, over time, wealth accumulation is tied in with ownership. We’re not going to attract the best and the brightest people into our profession if the return on their investment in education isn’t there. And that means that we need younger veterinarians to step up and want to be, have the resources and ability to be, practice owners. To what extent they’re not ready to do that, or to the extent they don’t want to do that, I think there’s not a lot of trustworthy data on that.
There are generational speakers who will tell you what millennials think about things, and what Gen Xer’s think about things, but I’m skeptical of those kinds of easy explanations for generational differences. I do think that veterinary students today don’t go into the profession necessarily expecting to be practice owners, which people in my generation, by and large, did. I think there is a need to help to get people into practice ownership – for the good of the profession.
Everyone is aware that, if we’re going to make this profession what it should be in the future, veterinarians need to be occupying other roles in society other than just clinical practice. However, in the clinical practice space, veterinarians need to be practice owners, and we have to make sure that we’re doing whatever needs to be done to encourage it.
Do you think that WVLDI can play a role in that, in changing both the conversation and the dynamic in terms of practice ownership?
We must, and we’re in the process of figuring out what role we can play to move this profession forward. It’s important to both raise awareness and focus the profession on what could be done and the tools we need. WVDLI may not provide them, but we’re certainly going to find ways to help get them for our colleagues.
We talked about practices; we talked about organized veterinary medicine. What about academia?
Academia, of course, is the wellspring of new veterinarians but academia is also in a state of flux. It’s expensive to train veterinarians, and we have, by and large, only had one model to do that. We now have a couple of colleges that have broken the model and I think the profession has not wholly embraced educational change, or the potential to change the way we deliver veterinary education. The current model for veterinary education, at least the financial model, is running on three wheels and is not sustainable. Something needs to be done, if, in the future, we’re to continue to attract the best people into our profession.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think veterinary medicine is poised at another moment to leap forward. You look back to 1863 and think about the profession those veterinarians faced, and their vision for the future – and it couldn’t have been this one. They had no way to imagine where we were going; they had no idea that cars were coming along. They didn’t understand that pets were going to be as important as they are. They didn’t understand international trade. They didn’t understand the tools that we have to treat animal disease and health. I don’t know where we’re actually going to go in our future, but wherever we’re headed promises to be better and brighter place than where we are at today, and WVLDI is going to help us get there.
Read more about WVLDI’s sessions for the upcoming AVMA 2014 Convention.