Race to the Top--Bartels, Walther vie for president-elect

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Not since Drs. Mary Beth Leininger and Richard C. Swanson faced off in 1995 has more than one candidate sought the office of AVMA president-elect. Competition at this level is, indeed, rare for the AVMA leadership. This July, when the AVMA House of Delegates convenes in Nashville, delegates must decide between two candidates vying to lead the Association: Drs. Jan E. Bartels of Auburn, Ala., and Jack O. Walther of Lamoille, Nev. Here, the candidates talk about why they are running, what they hope to accomplish as AVMA president-elect and president, and the value of competitive elections.

Dr. Bartels-
Why did you decide to run for president-elect?
The AVMA members made that decision. With enthusiastic support from the AVMA membership, I decided, if elected Executive Board chair, I would become a candidate. I was elected board chair in Salt Lake City [in 2000]. This gave me an opportunity to see a different perspective [of veterinary medicine] during that year—after 26 to 27 years in different positions in the AVMA, from councils to committees to the Executive Board. The HOD and the member veterinarians continued the confidence, enough for me to become a president-elect candidate.

What was your reaction to the news that Jack Walther would also be running for president-elect?
I didn't hear that until mid-December and I don't know at what point that became a consideration. My first reaction was that, probably, competition was good for the organization and the profession. That's typical of politics in general and, of course, once candidates come to the level of running for president-elect, there are some variabilities in credentials and qualifications and experiences, and I certainly have all of those in long suits in the profession and the AVMA.

As president, what would your agenda be?
It's imperative that I utilize my qualifications and experiences and my network of having worked with a lot of people at the AVMA and external organizations and allied groups. My service on councils and committees, the Executive Board, and year as chairman, make me well informed to face the issues in the profession. It's going to take problem solving and consensus decision-making to capitalize on these opportunities for the profession and the organization. I'll be looking at such issues as the Environmental Protection Act; we're going to have to take care of water quality this will affect not only large animal practice and mixed practice but also companion animal practices. We're going to be revisiting the Occupational Safety Hazard Act; we're going to have to maintain a vigil on attaining a federal veterinary research initiative. Antimicrobial resistance is not going to go away immediately, and the veterinary profession and the AVMA are going to have to maintain a constant vigil and an upper hand on that. We cannot ignore food safety. Small business issues are going to continue to play important economic roles in the veterinary profession. I see the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues and the issues surrounding the Skills, Knowledge, Aptitudes, and Attitudes [influencing] curriculum modification in veterinary medical education. We're going to be approaching a new model for clinical education. As a profession and as an organization, [we must] be prepared to look at globalization of veterinary medical education, and assure the public that there is quality assurance associated with foreign [veterinary] medical graduates and the accreditation process. Food production medicine: we will have to revisit this in colleges of veterinary medicine. We are going to have to solve the issues between the Association of American Veterinary State Boards and the Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates; I see the ECFVG becoming the premier "gold" standard of quality for foreign graduates' certification. We are going to have to be very attentive to issues in animal welfare and the human-animal bond. As our profession becomes more integrated with gender, we are going to have to assess a vision for communication and approach to cross-gender and generational issues. We've got to maintain solidarity and unity in the profession and in the organization. The NCVEI—I see it in existence for another 10 years; the continuity of leadership is necessary [for the] profession and organizations and allied groups, and it's going to be the salvation to the economic base for practicing veterinarians in clinical medicine and the salvation for students—for the future veterinarians and future members of the organization. NCVEI and its focus groups are starting to be very productive, with tangible results, and mentoring will emerge as one of those long-term projects.

Has your agenda changed at all since you declared your candidacy last July?
No, not really. My speech at the Candidates' [Introductory] Breakfast has really not perceptibly changed. The issues are still there, they still need to be solved.

Has your campaign itself changed after Dr. Walther entered the race?
Obviously, I went from being a sole candidate and not contested to having an opponent, so the intensity of the campaign has changed. But I've taken the high road; I'm running on qualifications, experience, and credentials, and so, I would say, not perceptibly.

Why do you think you are a better candidate for the office than Dr. Walther?
Having been on all sides of the AVMA and the board table—on the Council on Education, Council on Veterinary Service, serving on multiple committees, being active on the state level, serving on the Executive Board that side of the table, serving as chair—I have a perspective of the problems and how to solve them. With that wealth of experience, and with all those qualifications, I am willing, able, and quite ready to step to the other side of the table and become the spokesperson for the AVMA. I can do that with the depth and breadth of my experience and in having "grown up" with the issues. I saw them start at the council level, I saw them come to the Executive Board; I saw them from the chair level, and so I have a good, basic foundation in where these issues come from, go, and how they get solved.

Is it important that there be competitive elections for the office of president-elect?
On the positive side, yes. But there are a lot of factors that enter into it. Obviously, you have to be at a point in your career where you can afford the time. You've got to be either somewhat retired or you've got to be in a position where you've got somebody to cover your discipline. If all of the offices were contested, the organization would become stronger, but then, on the other hand, you [as a candidate] risk a great expenditure on campaign money and time and family sacrifice.

What are the issues and the challenges facing the profession?
If we don't solve our economic base [problem], we're going to lose the support of our industrial partners—the companies that provide services and goods to the profession at all levels are aware. If we don't prosper, they don't prosper. There's [also] got to be a salvation, motivation, and initiative for the younger, to-be professionals in the veterinary curriculum. They've got to have a goal that they know is tangible, and the NCVEI is the answer. That is going to be their future.

Do veterinarians suffer an image problem, and, if so, should the AVMA be doing more to show the full potential of veterinary medicine?
We're not people who seek the media; we don't promote ourselves very well. We are our own worst enemy; we are keeping our best secrets from the public. We need to capitalize on marketing, capitalize on public relations. Take, for example, the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams. That got us so much positive media, but that's only one facet of what veterinarians do. We've got to capitalize on what the veterinarians in the military do, what they do in industry, laboratory animal care, etc. We need to capitalize on our long suits, and we don't do it. And if marketing is one of those ways to "brand" us, then we're going to have to find a way to do it.

AVMA campaign regulations

Several food animal associations in the HOD are concerned that the AVMA is not adequately representing their interests. What's your response to this claim and, if elected, what would you do to convince them otherwise?
I've spent a lot of time talking to the American Association of Food Hygiene Veterinarians, the AABP, AAEP, Association of Avian Veterinarians, and AASV—I've mentioned that early on when I said that we had to pay attention to food production, food safety, and public health. We have to find avenues in the curriculum in veterinary medicine and avenues available outside the curriculum, once one graduates, to get into management and production medicine, where they can be absorbed into the marketplace. So yes, I'm vividly aware of it and it concerns me.

What qualities are the members of the House of Delegates looking for in a president?
My experience indicates that, above all, they want communication; they want to be an informed, knowledge-based HOD so that they can talk intelligently about issues to their constituents and veterinarians at the state level. They want a vision for utilizing my experience to accomplish leadership responsibilities. The best example is the AAVSB and ECFVG—it's absolutely necessary that delegates be informed so that they can inform state boards and their memberships. That's imperative. Obviously, one has to be a good listener as well as a spokesperson for the profession and the organization. You have to be knowledgeable and informed, then you have to be able to critically evaluate issues then build confidence and consensus.

Dr. Walther-
When did you decide to run for president-elect? What were your reasons?
I started thinking about it seriously in mid-November. I had to make a choice at that point of either running for a second term as VP or I could announce for president-elect. My philosophy was I would probably accomplish more [as president] and I could continue to do some things for the students that I might not be able to do as VP. So I talked to a number of veterinary leaders and there seemed to be a consensus that I would be a good candidate to run for president, and there was the feeling that having two people run for president probably was a good idea, and so I did.

There have been questions about your reasons for running. Did anyone in the veterinary leadership encourage you to seek the office of president-elect?
When I came up with this idea I talked to a lot of people because it's a big decision, and if there isn't a good consensus that you are a viable candidate, you don't really have any chance of running a good campaign. So yes, I talked to probably 20 or 30 different veterinary leaders and, for the most part, got a very positive response.

As president, what would your agenda be?
One of my pet projects is National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. I have had an opportunity by visiting with the students to see [the commission] from a little different perspective. I'm seeing students looking to that commission and what it's trying to accomplish. I want to make sure [the commission] continues and expands to the extent that it can. The second issue is marketing the profession. We do a good job, but we need to do a better job. I look at the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams showing up at ground zero. Everybody was totally amazed with the fact that the veterinary profession had an entity like that ready to function at a moment's notice. The American public and the world need to know what we're doing. I've got some marketing background. I intend to use that if I'm elected, to help continue our marketing efforts for the profession. I'm a believer in mentoring; bringing our young people into the profession is critical, not only to bring them in but to keep them in. We need to continue to work on developing the mentoring program. I'm an absolute advocate that the AVMA has to continue to be the umbrella organization for all of our disciplines. Our strengths as an association and as a profession depend on keeping everybody involved in our issues.

As you see it, what are the issues and challenges facing the veterinary profession?
The financial issues are our number one challenge. The philosophy coming out of the commission, the studies going on with the Skills, Knowledge, Aptitudes, and Attitudes [working group], bringing new students awareness of what they can do to help the economics. When they go into practice, all of those things are going to certainly improve—we have a long way to go, though.

Do veterinarians suffer an image problem, and, if so, should the AVMA be doing more to show the full potential of veterinary medicine?
The veterinary profession has a great image. In the past, since I've worked in legislatures and in Congress, it's wonderful when you walk up and say, "I am a veterinarian," and immediately you're a good guy. Our image as a profession is excellent. What we're lacking is the average person does not realize the education a veterinarian has to attain to get his degree. We do so many things that the public just isn't aware of. I certainly wouldn't say that there was any fault in what [AVMA has] done. We've done a really good job. I just think that we ought to do more and broaden our scope of marketing what we do.

Several food animal associations in the HOD are concerned that the AVMA is not adequately representing their interests. What's your response to this claim and, if elected, what would you do to convince them otherwise?
Some of the issues that the AVMA and the entire profession have been involved in have overshadowed a number of our other groups; food animal groups are certainly one of them. We have to have a continued awareness as we approach all of these issues—whether it is marketing, the national commission, or our committee structure—that we have to be sure that all of the disciplines are represented. It's an awareness that I have. I'm a rancher; that is part of my life. I'm probably more aware of [their concerns] than some veterinarians because that's what I do.

Is it important that there be competitive elections for the office of president-elect?
I have gotten a very strong feeling that an organization with 67,000 veterinarians ought to have two veterinarians that can run for the top office. As I researched my possibility for running for AVMA president-elect, one of the comments I got consistently from the House was, "Gee, it sure would be nice to have a choice." It gives you an opportunity to bring a lot of issues out and discuss them ... and that's really healthy for an organization.

AVMA rules don't prevent you from running concurrently for both president-elect and a second term as vice president. Yet you have declared your candidacy for the former only. How did you make this decision?
It's my philosophy not to hedge bets. Once I make a decision to move forward on any project, that decision is final. My decision to run for president-elect is one that did not come easily. It was probably one of the biggest decisions of my life and one that I took the most time on. But once that decision was made, I felt that I could do the job. I had good support throughout the profession, and that's what I was going to do.

In your address to the House of Delegates this January, you said that you "found being vice president was a little limiting." What did you envision the office would entail, and should the duties be expanded?
The perception for probably the last 20 years is that you only became VP to deal with student issues. And that's very important—students will always be part of my agenda. But when I became involved in the office of VP and the Executive Board, I felt that that philosophy was very limiting. So again, philosophically, I could see that if I really was going to accomplish what I wanted to do with this profession, and I have the ability to, I was going to have to do it besides being VP.

How will you fulfill your obligations to veterinary students while campaigning for president-elect?
My job as VP is number one, period. I will not let my campaign, in any way, interfere with my job. And that's just the way I've done it. My rule is that if I go to a state as VP, I absolutely, positively will not discuss my campaign at all with anybody. As far as my student visits, they are all scheduled. And we're going to keep doing what we're doing. We've got the student economic symposium, we've got the student symposium, we've got an advisory council, we've got eight more schools to visit between now and May. So, that's basically my commitment and that's what I'm going to be doing.

How have the students reacted to the news of your decision?
Pretty darned positive, actually.

Why are you better qualified for the office than Dr. Bartels?
There are a few areas where I have some strengths—my leadership, my ability, and philosophy. I can get an awful lot done with a minimum of controversy. I bring people together. I've had a phenomenal amount of experience in major organizations. My experience in having been on the State Board [of Veterinary Examiners] in Nevada gives me a good insight into the problems we've been having with state board associations. Having worked with Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates from almost its very beginning, I understand and am open-minded about reviewing and upgrading it. Due to my work with the HOD, I have great support from that group, which will help and allow me to get some of these projects done.

What qualities are the members of the House of Delegates looking for in a president?
A communicator; a visionary; somebody that the House members can relate to because I've been one of them. There's a comfort level knowing that I understand the House. They also know that when I came into the House, there was no communication between the House and the Executive Board. That's all in the process of changing, and I was a part of that. A number of the House members are very comfortable with my having been one of them and stepping in and continuing that process.