Veterinary leaders seek details on proposed governance reforms

Ending HOD, holding direct elections, and paring down advisory councils are part of AVMA task force’s draft recommendation
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old
Dr. Basler
Dr. Jon Basler, Alaska’s representative to the AVMA House of Delegates, discusses options for making AVMA governance more efficient and responsive to member needs.

Veterinary leaders got their first look this January at a draft proposal for a leaner, more democratic AVMA governance structure designed to better facilitate member input, participation, and recruitment.

More than 300 members of the veterinary community attended the Task Force on AVMA Governance and Member Participation’s unveiling of its recommended reforms at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference Jan. 4 in Chicago.

The task force has proposed replacing the AVMA Executive Board and House of Delegates with a 17-member board of directors with sole authority over Association finances, bylaws, and policy, allowing AVMA members to directly elect officers, eliminating the AVMA vice president position, and granting voting rights to individual veterinary students.

Additionally, the 11 AVMA geographic districts would be eliminated, officers and directors would be elected through an online secret balloting process, and a Leadership Nominating Committee would select members serving on seven advisory councils formed around such AVMA strategic goals as advocacy, animal welfare, and education.

With a current governance structure comprising an Executive Board and House of Delegates—each empowered to establish Association policy; a Board of Governors; some 30 councils, committees, trusts, and task forces; and not forgetting an election process seen as favoring Association insiders, the AVMA has been criticized as an exclusive, slow-to-act organization often out of touch with the general membership.

AVMA leaders and stakeholders generally agree that the Association must evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century. The 2011 report of the AVMA 20/20 Vision Commission concluded that the AVMA must function in a manner that “promotes high trust, broad participation, and commitment” among members and stakeholders and must operate and govern “proactively, strategically, and incorporating technological advances.” The AVMA governance and member participation task force itself was established in response to a 2011 HOD resolution.

The final shape of any reforms, however, is still up for debate.

“I think we all would like to have an organization that is more relevant and responsive to members, and at the same time, thoughtful, nimble, and more efficient in decision making,” Executive Board Chair Janver Krehbiel said. “The task force has a very difficult assignment, but I have great confidence in their ability to meet our expectations and provide a recommendation that will best serve our members, the profession, and our Association for the future.”

Never easy

Change, so the saying goes, is never easy. And not surprisingly, the initial reaction to the task force’s draft governance model, presented this January during a session billed as the Governance Dialog, was a mix of support for the generalities and skepticism over the specifics.

“I don’t think it was much of a dialogue,” said Dr. Richard Sullivan, California’s representative to the HOD. “It was more the task force telling us what they have accomplished and where they’re heading.”

Governance Dialog participants sat at tables while Glenn Tecker, an expert in association governance and the task force adviser, moderated the session. Between presentations by task force members, participants used keypads to register their level of support for a total of 46 governance statements, then discussed the various issues at their table. For instance, participants were asked, “What was the overall average cost of a resolution in 2012?” The answer, according to task force member Dr. Kathy Reilly, was approximately $57,580.

“Here are the facts,” Dr. Reilly, also the Massachusetts delegate, said. “Over the past 10 years, the House of Delegates has discussed 83 resolutions. In order to discuss these resolutions, the HOD comes together twice a year. The total cost in 2012 for the House of Delegates, including meeting expenses, travel, the House Advisory Committee, and the HOD leadership development program, plus staff expenses, was $633,382.

“What that translates to is a cost of about $57,580 for each of the 11 resolutions considered in 2012. If you really take a good look at these resolutions, I think you will agree that there are an inadequate number of substantive issues resolved commensurate with the large amount of resources it takes. This is not a good use of finite resources.”

Dr. Sullivan stressed how much he and many other HOD members appreciate the task force’s efforts but said the group was short on specifics and provided even fewer choices. “I was hoping that we would have seen more than one option and have had a better opportunity to ask questions,” he said.

The AVMA task force had initially planned on condensing eight governance models into three that would be presented at the Veterinary Leadership Conference. Only one model was offered, however.

Glenn Tecker
Professional association governance guru Glenn Tecker asks Governance Dialog participants to register their level of support for various proposals relevant to reforming AVMA governance.

In his opening remarks at the Governance Dialog, task force Chair Ralph Johnson clarified the reason behind the change. Johnson explained that commonalities among stakeholder responses to an earlier online survey led the task force to identify core concepts and incorporate them into a single hybrid model.

“While many options remain in how the governance system is defined, we have defined three key elements, namely, a board of directors, a set of advisory councils, and a Leadership Nominating Committee,” said Johnson, executive director of the Colorado VMA.

In an interview with JAVMA News, Johnson elaborated on these key governance features as envisioned by the task force. The board of directors would exercise both fiduciary and policy authority over the AVMA and comprise 17 members: the AVMA president, president-elect, immediate past president, treasurer, and 11 at-large directors, all elected by the general membership; and the executive vice president and associate EVP as nonvoting directors.

Seven advisory councils would act as the primary mechanism for identifying critical and emerging issues to be brought before the AVMA board of directors. Committees and task forces would be convened on an ad hoc basis to support the councils with expertise and member information.

The 11-member Leadership Nom­inating Committee would appoint advisory council, committee, and task force members, primarily on the basis of their experience and expertise while also ensuring appropriate diversity and stakeholder representation.

Swift reaction

Along with the lack of governance model options, a common complaint was that the questions posed to attendees during the Governance Dialog were either condescending or leading. Moderator Glenn Tecker was said to be overly technical in his presentation on trends in association governance. Others thought the Dialog, which ran for more than four hours, too long.

The most common criticism leveled at the task force concerned the lack of clarity about the role of the House of Delegates in the proposal. Johnson clarified for JAVMA News that the task force model does indeed eliminate the HOD, at least in its current form as a policymaking body.

“However, please keep in mind that the model is a work in progress, and feedback from the session will be used to further refine the model,” Johnson added. “In their deliberations, the task force recognized the value of face-to-face gatherings for the exchange of ideas and information, leadership development, and peer networking. I think it is fair to say that the final recommendations from the task force will contain provisions for such gatherings.”

Criticism had reached a level such that, the day after the Dialog, task force members spoke to each of the seven HOD reference committees, elaborating on the proposed governance model and answering member questions.

“In retrospect, we recognize that we tried to do too much in the time that was allotted to us, in a stifling room and with limited opportunity for dialogue at the tables,” Johnson acknowledged. “Add to that mix the introduction of controversial concepts, the wording of assessment statements that some perceived to be leading, plus our failure not to communicate to participants in advance that we’d be discussing one model instead of three, and it’s easy to understand why some participants were dissatisfied.

Sixty percent of respondents expressed some level of agreement with the statement “There must be only one entity with fiduciary duty, including authority for bylaws, articles of incorporation, and fiscal matters—and the entity with the fiduciary authority should also have policy authority.” Relatedly, 59 percent of respondents supported formation of a 17-member board of directors. Governance Dialog participants were not asked whether the HOD should be eliminated or continue in a new capacity, however.

“That said, there were many positive outcomes from the session. Most importantly, we obtained highly valuable feedback for consideration by the task force.”

Notably, 65 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the current AVMA governance structure “is leading to a significant disconnect between those who serve and those choosing not to get involved in the current organizational hierarchy.”

Sixty percent of respondents expressed some level of agreement with the statement “There must be only one entity with fiduciary duty, including authority for bylaws, articles of incorporation, and fiscal matters—and the entity with the fiduciary authority should also have policy authority.”

Relatedly, 59 percent of respondents supported formation of a 17-member board of directors. Governance Dialog participants were not asked whether the HOD should be eliminated or continue in a new capacity, however.

There was also overwhelming support for creating advisory councils around the AVMA’s strategic goals that would consist of 11 to 13 individuals, including liaison representatives from the board of directors and AVMA staff. Just over half the respondents favored forming a Leadership Nominating Committee responsible for selecting council members.

Fifty-one percent of respondents did not support the task force proposal to incorporate veterinary students in the AVMA membership with full individual voting rights. Under the current governance structure, student interests are represented by the AVMA vice president and Student AVMA president, both of whom participate on the Executive Board, and the SAVMA members of the HOD.

If students were made AVMA members, SAVMA President Bridget Heilsberg says they would begin their veterinary careers fully understanding the advantages of being part of the organization. And, by being treating as equals, students might also become more involved in the AVMA.

Dr. Reily
Dr. Kathy Reily, a member of the Task Force on AVMA Governance and Member Participation, joins a discussion at the Governance Dialog.

The primary reason cited by opponents of the measure was that they consider veterinary students as lacking experience in developing a sufficient knowledge base on issues, according to Johnson.

Heilsberg, who is also a task force member, believes additional supporters will be won over, once they have more information about the proposal. “I do know that several participants who initially cast a vote in that 51 percent indicated that their opinion would change if assured that a student could not be AVMA president and student membership would involve some type of dues system, and with the knowledge that less than 1 percent of veterinary students fail to graduate and become veterinarians after matriculation,” she said.

Forward motion

Changes to AVMA governance require a bylaws amendment approved by a two-thirds vote of the House of Delegates, “a very high threshold,” Johnson admitted. “Part of the task force’s challenge is to present the case for change to all entities in the AVMA, and to show that this change is necessary for the Association to remain relevant to its members,” he explained.

Since the Governance Dialog in January, task force members have been holding regular conference calls, and they will meet in March to review the feedback and refine the governance model that will ultimately be recommended to the Executive Board. The task force is tentatively scheduled to send its report to the board in June, but Johnson said the task force may need to extend its deadline.

House Advisory Committee Chair Karen Bradley thinks the current AVMA governance structure can’t accommodate the gender and generational shifts under way in the veterinary profession. Younger veterinarians need to believe they are part of the organization, she added, and have a low tolerance for political systems that favor connections over competence.

Keep in mind that the model is a work in progress, and feedback from the session will be used to further refine the model.

Ralph Johnson, chair, Task Force on AVMA Governance and Member Participation

Dr. Bradley advised the task force to work with HOD members on refining the governance model, providing delegates with data and support for their conclusions along the way. “The more delegates are involved in the process, the more they will feel relevant and connected,” she said.

Whatever model governance the task force ultimately brings forward, the pain will likely be felt throughout the current AVMA governance structure. Dr. Bradley and others advocating for change consider the reforms a momentary discomfort necessary to the Association’s future health.

“It’s hard to sit in judgment of yourself and acknowledge that the role you play in the HOD may not be relevant in today and tomorrow’s AVMA,” Dr. Bradley said.

“I would like to believe every HOD member is capable of critically examining what is presented and truly acts on what is best for the Association and the future of the profession rather than what’s in their own or their constituent group’s best interests.”