Women leading change: Mary Beth Leininger


The AVMA's first female president now seeks to help re-energize veterinary education.

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Dr. Mary Beth Leininger made history in Michigan when she became the first woman president of the Michigan VMA. She topped it when she became the first woman AVMA president. But Leininger’s rise to high veterinary offices wasn’t motivated by aspirations of greatness. The truth is, she’s actually just high on the work.

“Many organizational leaders are just like me: veterinary junkies,” she says. “We’re happiest when we’re hanging out with our colleagues.” Once Dr. Leininger was involved in professional organizations and her input started to help make things happen, she was hooked.

In 1995, Dr. Leininger won a rare contested election to become AVMA president after she served for years on the AVMA’s public relations committee. But she says the most surprising thing wasn’t that a woman was elected, but that she hadn’t served on the AVMA executive board. Although she servied for nine years on the AVMA’s Public Relations Council, and was qualified according to the AVMA constiution, she was one of only two successful president candidates in more than 40 years who didn’t come from the executive board track.

Before the election, Dr. Leininger spent her time traveling the country to spend time with veterinarians outside of her comfort zone of small animal practice. She met with veterinarians in state and federal service, food animal careers, equine practice, colleges, and military service. She was determined to be well prepared to work with the diverse groups and broad interests she would represent as head of the AVMA.

Former AVMA marketing director Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM, says that Dr. Leininger’s cross-country trips as AVMA president turned into “town hall” meetings. During these gatherings Dr. Leininger would listen to suggestions and complaints from members and encourage more involvement at the national level. “She really made the AVMA more accessible to the average member,” Gavzer says.

Leininger translated her visibility as the national voice for veterinarians to become director of professional affairs at Hill’s Pet Nutrition for a decade. Now, Dr. Leininger is bringing her skills and experience to bear on a new mission: She’s project manager for the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC), an organization to create a “road map” for future veterinary education that brings together representatives from roughly 200 veterinary entities, including most of the member institutions of the American Academy of Veterinary Medical Colleges as well as testing, licensing, and accrediting organizations.

The joint venture “will work because everybody knows the current education system is not sustainable,” she says. Rising student debt and a lack of veterinarians to fill crucial public health and other public practice roles are damaging the profession and society, she says.

As AVMA president, Dr. Leininger sought to fix the communication gap between veterinarians and their national representatives—and the seeds she planted then continue to bear fruit. The profession hopes she can help achieve the same success in veterinary education.

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