How a small-town veterinarian turned founding dean

'Most deans are longtime academics, and I'm not that guy'

October 19, 2023 (published)
Photo courtesy of Dr. Matthew Edson
Dr. Matthew Edson, founding dean of the Shreiber School of Veterinary Medicine of Rowan University, said the school isn't being established because of a perceived nationwide shortage of practitioners. Its purpose, he said, is to provide veterinary education in New Jersey, which currently has no in-state option.

Dr. Matthew Edson grew up riding horses and breeding goats on his family's farm in Eastampton Township, New Jersey. Fast forward two decades, and he's leading the emerging Schreiber Veterinary Medical School at Rowan University.

Edson's journey toward establishing the state's first veterinary program is rooted in more than animal care. Before pursuing an animal science degree at Rutgers University and enrolling in veterinary school at Kansas State University in 2007, he worked as a lifeguard and paramedic. He credits his experience in emergency services with giving him the confidence after graduating in 2011 to launch an equine ambulatory practice in his hometown.

"I left school, threw my dog in a pickup with a toolbox full of drugs and went into ambulatory practice seeing primarily horses," Edson said. "I had a pretty immediate client base of friends and family, but it was also challenging. Having lived the lifestyle of being 9-1-1, you kind of learn to figure things out, fill in the gaps and make things work. I think operating in that environment helped me make decisions." 

Edson got involved with the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association and in 2020, served as its president. He also volunteered as a site visitor with the American Veterinary Medical Association's accrediting body, the Council on Education.

Meanwhile, the business that began in his truck evolved into prosperous brick-and-mortar practices. Edson was juggling both in 2021 when Rowan University officials tapped him to lead New Jersey's first veterinary school as its founding dean. In his transition to full-time academia, Edson sold one of his practices and has stepped away from the other. Should all go as planned, the school will debut in fall 2025, one of about a dozen programs under development. 

Last month, Edson turned 40. His relative youth, limited academic experience and background in practice ownership make him an anomaly among deans. Many of his peers have spent their careers in veterinary education, some having served as dean at multiple institutions. "Most deans are longtime academics, and I'm not that guy," Edson said. "I had a little bit of a different path."

In brief

During an interview in May and follow-up communications with the VIN News Service, Edson talked about his background and particulars of the future school. Among the topics that came up is the fact that Rowan is only 22 miles from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. The 139-year-old institution recently expanded its class size by 6% to 134 seats to cater to an increasing demand for veterinarians. (Many of the new schools in the works also cite public demand for more and better access to veterinary care.)

PennVet's leadership appears unfazed by the prospect of a neighboring veterinary school — even supportive. Asked for reaction to Rowan's plans, Dr. Claire Bruno, assistant dean of admissions and student life, said: "In a geographic area dense with people and households such as ours, there is an urgent and ongoing need for emergency services, critical care and specialty services. Increasing the number of veterinary graduates is essential to ensure that we have a sufficient workforce within our metropolitan area to meet the desperate needs of underserved areas; meet the needs of the growing pet population; and produce more veterinarians with expertise in specialized fields such as oncology and cardiology."

Alluding to PennVet's formidable reputation, Edson said: "We don't have their name recognition, and there's a lot of people out there who think this is a private, for-profit vet school, and it's not. Rowan is a state university looking to deliver much needed access to veterinary education and clinical care in a very densely populated area. There is plenty of room for both of us."

The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea for veterinary education at Rowan evolve? What's the backstory?

Several years ago, Rowan University approached the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association and said, "Hey, we're looking to potentially start a vet school. Would you be in support of this?" And the NJVMA said, "Let's have a meeting and talk about the plans a little more." And they basically, as an organization, said they're on board if this is a school that's designed to promote access for New Jersey residents with affordable and in-state tuition. If it's just another vet school and the for-profit model, no.

Rowan is a public institution, state-supported, and the plan was to provide New Jersey residents with access to a veterinary education. That's certainly a noble goal we all could get behind. Rowan eventually asked me to come on as a consultant to help them to do a feasibility study. There was a lot of years of that before they asked me in 2021 to come on board to head the program.

Given your limited academic background, what led Rowan to appoint you as dean?

I guess they liked the ideas I brought forward and the perspective that I had to share. I couldn't tell you specifically why they thought I was the guy. But having had a lot of general practice experience, having built practices, been in organized local-, national-, state-level organized veterinary medicine and having some experience as a site visitor with for AVMA COE doing accreditation, I understood the process of the accrediting side. I think they appreciated that. 

To earn accreditation, Rowan must meet the AVMA COE's 11 standards. Will your experience with the COE help the process?

Veterinary education booms

I did six years as a site visitor, so I probably went to six sites. I had been in some new and emerging programs. I think it was a helpful experience for me to see how that process works, but really, there's not any inside track. It was a volunteer position. I wasn't a sitting member of the council that makes decisions. We were just the on-site observers who did the evaluation reports for the council. It was helpful to know what the process is like. Certainly, you can read a couple hundred pages of standards, but if you've been through those programs and evaluating against those standards for six years, you probably know the standards a little better than if you just read them for the first time.

I think my history in the state and my connections in so many places and history being a practice owner are probably more helpful than even that experience.

Why is Rowan opting to construct a traditional teaching hospital rather than use distributed learning for clinical skills instruction, considering that building such a facility is much more expensive?

There aren't a lot of programs where teaching hospitals are necessarily a profit center, but we're in a little bit of a unique situation here. We're in the southern half of New Jersey, where there is very limited access to referral care and a great need for the services of a facility like that. Being in South Jersey 20 minutes outside of Philly is a lot different than if we start a vet school in a tiny town in the Midwest. 

There are great things about distributed education, but there are also a lot of challenges. You have students all over the place at lots of sites, and it's hard to control the quality of those sites to be consistent. A student at one location might have a different experience than a student at another. What we chose to do here is have a model where we have a teaching hospital and plan to deliver at least 75% of the core rotations in our own facilities, whether that be our teaching hospital, at one of our shelter medicine facilities, or on our ambulatory vehicles that are seeing horses and large animals. And then for the services that we don't offer within our own facilities, have partnerships elsewhere to send students to.

So we will have a component of distributed education, but it's a much smaller piece of the program here — the 25% that we're not able to offer within the walls of our own facilities. And that number might be even smaller. Some of that is dictated by our ability to hire specialists in a very competitive hiring climate. So it's designed to supplement what we're able to offer.

What comprises the 25%?

We don't plan to have radiation oncology in our hospital. We, at this point, do not have a large animal teaching hospital. We have plans to potentially construct one in the future, so any of the specialty large animal-type areas — equine surgery; internal medicine, to some degree; bovine theriogenology; feedlot medicine; stuff that we can't offer here — we'll have alternate sites for our students to access that, either through a commercial partner, a government partner or another veterinary school of some type.

New Jersey isn't a large beef/dairy state, so we're not going to have access to a giant cattle surgical facility.

But if you look at the majority of programs around the country, even those that have that, they don't necessarily have a very large caseload of cows or pigs coming in for surgery unless they're pets. Building such a facility is fiscally challenging. We could build a $20 million cattle surgical facility and not have any cattle that come through there as patients. But for the majority of the large animal experience, we think we can cover ambulatory and field services. We have an equine internal medicine specialist who joined us in August who's doing ambulatory and field service, we have a general practice equine vet, and we're hoping to get a food animal clinician. 

What's the class size?

The initial cohort is supposed to be 60 to 70 students. Then we'll work our way up the next year to 80, and then after that, 90, and that will be our target.

Four-year tuition at veterinary schools in the United States ranges from $78,479 to $155,295 for residents and $131,200 to $285,367 for nonresidents, according to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges. How will Rowan's tuition compare?

The details of tuition are not publicly available at this point. But we do know that there will be reduced rates for residents compared with out-of-state residents, and we're hopeful that we can keep that at or below what the national in-state and out-of-state tuition averages are.

The AAVMC reports that the number of first-year students at U.S. institutions exceeded 4,000 for the first time in 2023. That figure is expected to increase 18% by 2027, a reflection of growing class sizes and a double-digit increase in new programs. Do you think the U.S. market can support the influx of veterinarians? Are you concerned about Rowan's long-term ability to fill veterinary school seats? 

I think that it's important, No. 1, for us to point out that we're not doing this because there suddenly was a staffing crisis at veterinary practices. This has been a project since, I think, 2018. We've been many years in the making. This started even pre-Covid, before all this boom. So we're not doing this to be reactionary to that little blip on the radar.

That's important, because 10 years ago, if you said you were building another vet school, there were vets with pitchforks out there who said, "We have enough. People can't find jobs. Why do you want to do that?" Now you ask people, and they say, "I can't find anyone to hire. How do we make more vets?"

My point is, in 10 years, we could swing backward with the pendulum and be in a situation where we have tons of graduates and not enough jobs again. So we're not doing this in reaction to anything like that. Our residents don't have access to veterinary education in the state of New Jersey. That's why we're doing this. 

As far as filling seats, I don't think that's a concern for us at this stage. But certainly, things can change. There was a time with dental schools when lots of them closed and they consolidated that industry because there were way too many dental schools. I know there are other programs that are in the pipeline. Some of those are states looking at multiple programs. 

I don't know that we'd necessarily change our course based on what folks are doing in other places, but I think it's going to take a whole lot of new vet schools to get to a point where we're really competing for an applicant pool. We're more concerned about what's happening in the state of New Jersey and providing that access to students here.

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