The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has had its ups and downs throughout its existence. From losing its accreditation to becoming one of the leading institutions in veterinary medicine, one man has been through it all – Dean Bennie Osburn. But like all good things, the dean’s 14-year tenure will be coming to an end as he will retire in the summer of 2011.
“It has been really an honor, a privilege and an exciting opportunity over the past 14 years as dean,” he said. “I have an incredible faculty that is creative and willing to step out and do things that are moving the profession ahead. In my eyes, we are the lead veterinary institution and are opening opportunities in the field,” Osburn said.
Due in large part to Osburn, UC Davis is consistently ranked as one of the best veterinary schools in the country. It is the only public veterinary school in California that is allowed to graduate students with a doctorate of veterinary medicine.
The dean’s interest in animals began long ago. Always intrigued by animals, Osburn did not decide to pursue veterinary medicine as a career until his first year at Kansas State University. He continued his education at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where he became interested in pathology and the basis of disease. In 1965, he received his doctorate in comparative pathology at UC Davis and served as a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University. It would not be until 1970 that Osburn would return to UC Davis, this time as a faculty member.
In his early years before taking his post as dean, Osburn made key discoveries in food safety and food-animal viruses, most notably research on the bluetongue virus in livestock. His research resulted in more than 280 peer-reviewed publications.
While handling his responsibilities as a professor and researcher, Osburn also served as the veterinary school’s associate dean for research and graduate education for 20 years, until becoming dean in 1996 during the veterinary school’s 50th anniversary.
“Becoming dean during the 50th anniversary is a memory I will cherish forever,” he said.
This decision ultimately resulted in the beginning of a golden era for the school, which rose from lower rankings to become one of the highest ranked veterinary medicine programs in the country.
In 1998, the American Veterinary Medical Association put the school’s status on limited accreditation due to deficiencies in its facilities. To combat this, Osburn and his team rallied the UC Davis community to raise funds for new buildings. But the dean did not want to just improve the facilities to regain accreditation. In a press release Osburn said he wanted to build facilities of a size unprecedented in the University of California’s history to promote advances in the field of veterinary medicine.
The school received its full accreditation in 2004, mostly due to the remodeling, which included the construction of seven new buildings. The seventh building will be completed by the summer of 2012, a year after Osburn’s retirement.
“Six new facilities are completed while the seventh is still under construction,” he said. “Hopefully, these new facilities will provide both educational and research opportunities that will be critical over the next couple of generations.”
As dean, Osburn is responsible for programs within and outside the veterinary school as well as the students and staff. In addition to nearly 700 students, there are 90 residents and 280 faculty and staff members. He is also in charge of various centers throughout California, including the Wildlife Care Network with its own 24 sites along the California coast, Osburn said.
When he first became dean, Osburn knew he wanted to leave the school better than he found it.
“I wanted to make sure that we had a solid core program in veterinary medicine but also expand the opportunity for it. I did this by kicking off a comparative medicine center, developed the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, which protects food supplies and assures the safety and quality of foods,” he said.
Osburn also nurtured the Wildlife Health Center (WHC), a multidisciplinary program within the School of Veterinary Medicine that focuses on the health of free-ranging and captive terrestrial and aquatic wild animals.
“[The WHC] evolved into a major program that recently received a $75 million research grant to identify factors for diseases,” he said.
The development of various programs may be impressive, but Osburn’s career is full of various accomplishments. He more than doubled annual researchh funding from $46 million in 1996 to $109 million in 2010. He also recruited almost 90 new faculty members and more than 150 scientists, lecturers and adjunct faculty. The doctor of veterinary medicine degree class size also increased under his term, from 108 students to 131 per class every year. Doing so has helped alleviate California’s shortage for veterinarians, he said.
Aside from the veterinary school, Osburn has held numerous positions in other organizations, from acting chair of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Biotechnology Research Advisory Committee from 1988 to 1991 to the president of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges from 2003 to 2005.
Osburn has also received various awards throughout his career. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges presented him with the Melcher Leadership in Public Policy Award for his advance in veterinarian medical education, to name just one.
While Osburn has been a tremendous influence on the UC Davis campus, he cannot stay forever. After this academic year, Osburn will be leaving the family and school he spent years building. He still plans to continue his veterinarian career as a consultant but looks forwards to working on his ranch with his son.
“As the next chapter unfolds, I look forward to new opportunities in my life,” he said.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at email@example.com.