Veterinarians brainstorm to change AVMA governance

Efforts to enhance democracy reflect ongoing transformation

July 20, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of the American Veterinary Medical Association
Roughly 60 veterinarians gathered July 8-9 at a hotel in Schaumburg, Ill., to participate in the AVMA Summit on Governance. The group's ideas to revamp how the national organization governs and makes policy will be presented next month to the AVMA House of Delegates in San Diego.
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) long-standing system for governance and policy-making could be in for an overhaul, with veterinarians weighing in on how the national organizations might best reflect the voice of its 82,500-plus members. 

On Aug. 2, the AVMA House of Delegates will gather in San Diego for its annual meeting and a presentation of ideas from the AVMA Summit on Governance — a group of 60 or so veterinarians that met earlier this month in Schaumburg, Ill., to brainstorm about how best to change the national association’s governance infrastructure.  

The summit’s work is part of a larger project by the AVMA Task Force on Governance and Member Participation, which is charged with making formal recommendations to alter how the AVMA functions so that it's more transparent, inclusive and representative. 

Dr. Ted Cohn, chair of the AVMA Executive Board and summit attendee, acknowledged that trying to retool the inner workings of such a large, national group is a major undertaking. Still, he considers it necessary to the AVMA’s future health as a membership organization. 

“We need to streamline governance so that we’re more relevant and effective, but more important than that, we need to figure out a way for members’ voices to more easily be heard,” Cohn said in an interview with the VIN News Service. “I think we have to find ways of making more informed decisions.” 

In recent years, veterinarians have criticized the AVMA — its Executive Board, in particular — for seeming to operate in a vacuum, making decisions that carry widespread impact without consulting a larger body such as the AVMA House of Delegates or the at-large membership. 

Members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) aired such concerns in mid-2010 by campaigning to enhance democracy within the AVMA’s governance. Their message, emblazoned on advertisements during the 2010 AVMA House of Delegates meeting in Atlanta, campaigned for “one member, one vote.” A website dedicated to the idea urged other veterinarians to unite behind it. 

“We hope you'll join us in shaping a better AVMA and profession FOR the membership, BY the membership,” the website stated.

(VIN, an online community that counts more than 47,000 veterinary professionals as members, is the parent of the VIN News Service.)  

At the time, the unconventional and public challenge reflected angst from veterinarians who’d expressed outrage concerning the AVMA’s ties to a private pet health insurance company and its policy of extending U.S. accreditation internationally

It also garnered a lot of attention that heightened months later when the Executive Board changed the Veterinarian’s Oath, inciting a backlash from members. While critics did not object to the newly added language — four words pertaining to animal welfare — many believed that altering the symbolic foundation of what it means to be a veterinarian deserved a broader review. 

Delegates began to publicly acknowledge a power struggle between the association’s Executive Board and its larger House that, strictly speaking, is the association's primary policy-making body comprised of 136 representatives from nearly every state and allied group in the profession. The reality, however, is that House delegates convene just twice a year and decisions often are deferred to the more agile 16-member Executive Board, which meets six times annually. 

Then came last spring’s 20/20 AVMA Vision Commission report, which linked the association’s future health to operating in a more “transparent, inclusive and more democratized manner." 

By the time House members gathered in July 2011 in St. Louis, conducting an organizational self-study was politically palatable. In short order, the group resolved to spend an estimated $45,000 to review how the association might better operate. 

“What we’re seeing now is an accelerated expectation for change,” explained Ralph Johnson, executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. 

In January, Johnson was appointed to chair the Task Force on AVMA Governance and Member Participation — an 11-member body charged with analyzing every corner of the AVMA’s governance infrastructure for effectiveness and purpose. That includes the AVMA Executive Board and House of Delegates as well as various councils, task forces, commissions, trusts and committees. 

Convening the 60-member Summit on Governance was an initial step in the information-gathering process, Johnson said. In an interview with the VIN News Service, Johnson explained that a public comment period will follow his August presentation before the House of Delegates. Feedback will be sought on eight different models for governance that were formulated by the summit's participants. The task force will meet in October to synthesize ideas from the comments.  
House members expect to hear a second presentation from the task force during the group’s Winter Session in January. From there, the task force will formulate its recommendations for implementing change.

“We’re a long way from the final report,” Johnson said. “We’ve opted to be thoughtful and thorough as opposed to saying, ‘Geez, we have to crank this report out.’” 

He linked the profession’s interest in seeing how the AVMA might evolve to its history as a well-run and successful organization: 

“The AVMA has done a lot of things terrifically well, so how can it continue to be a thoughtful, nimble and perhaps more broadly engaging organization? What we’re seeing now are suggestions for everything from minor adjustments to radical, widespread changes.” 


VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.