One on One with Dean Kochevar

One on One with Dean Kochevar

“From the beginning, I said I really wanted to keep teaching. I think it’s dangerous for deans not to teach.” This is what Dean Deborah Kochevar says when I ask her what keeps her coming back every year to teach the first-year Human Animal Relationships course. She explains how she feels it’s essential for administrators to be in the classroom, and how Cummings School embodies this, with associate deans and department chairs contributing to the DVM curriculum. “That’s really why we’re here, after all,” she says, in a way that implies that she has always believed it.

Dean Kochevar’s path to “here” began with her childhood in Arlington, Texas. She knew she wanted to be a veterinarian at an early age, but chose to major in both English and Biology at Rice University. She attended veterinary school at Texas A&M University in College Station, and then moved back to Dallas to practice at a small animal clinic. It wasn’t long before she began to attend seminars at the University of Texas Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where she pursued a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology.

As her PhD program neared completion, Dean Kochevar returned to College Station, and fell back into the academic environment. She accepted a faculty position at Texas A&M, where she divided her time between research and teaching. She became more interested in pharmacology, eventually pursuing board certification. She talks about loving the teaching as well as the curriculum committee work, as she moved from a faculty position to Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

In addition to her work at Texas A&M, Dean Kochevar served on and chaired the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education, the national accrediting body for veterinary medical education in the US. It was her work with accreditation that first brought her to the Cummings School in 2004, as chair of a site visit team reviewing Cummings School . A few years later, the Deanship became open, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I ask Dean Kochevar about educators who inspired her journey through academia, and she starts with the teachers and role models in her own family: her mother, who taught 3rd grade for three decades, and her father, who returned to school on the G.I. Bill to pursue a PhD in English. She also speaks fondly of veterinarian-scientist William Jenkins, who was her 2nd-year pharmacology professor at Texas A&M and a brilliant proponent of the Socratic method. “He could pose questions, receive nonsense answers from students and not make them feel silly – just work with them through a wrong answer until they understood the right one,” she says. Dr. Jenkins eventually left A&M for Louisiana State University, where he served as Dean of the Veterinary School, Provost, President and eventually Chancellor before retiring. Dean Kochevar remembers forming an interest in pharmacology and certainly in pedagogy and education as his student and then colleague. “He did give me a call when they were looking for a Dean at LSU,” she says, laughing, “But it was just a chat!”

I panic for a second while imagining Dean Kochevar leaving our campus for another one, but she puts my anxieties to rest by telling me why she loves being Dean at the Cummings School in particular. “I think the caliber of students here is just excellent,” she says. “They have a breadth of experience that positions them to not only be good veterinary students but to be articulate and engaged.” She mentions that each incoming class represents around 70 undergraduate institutions, unlike some of the larger state schools. “We have a lot of experiential diversity, and it’s engaging to have this kind of a group as students,” she says.

She praises our faculty, who spend every day “processing an enormous amount of varied clinical cases and pursuing research,” and emphasizes that almost all of the clinicians and research faculty also teach in the classroom. “To me that makes a statement about Cummings School, and it’s a very attractive feature of this place.”

When asked to summarize her teaching philosophy, Dean Kochevar immediately stresses the importance of active learning. She tells me about how the Cummings School has endeavored to spend less time delivering PowerPoints, and more time incorporating Problem-Based Learning and case-based lessons with each new class. “Everyone’s striving for that,” she tells me. “Getting students to think and engage rather than just sit and receive.”

I ask her if she has any advice for current Cummings veterinary students who have an interest in teaching or academia. “People need to ask themselves – what are the skill sets I need to be able to have a sustainable professional life?” she says. She lists the different credentials that academics have gone on to pursue after their DVM: board specialties for clinicians, Master’s or PhD programs for the more research-inclined. She also talks about continuing to love active learning, and about having genuine passion for teaching and interfacing with students. “Be sure to know what you’re getting into, and what’s required of the track you want to pursue. Be sure that you can do it and be happy. And realize that it’s going to take a little while, that it doesn’t happen overnight.” I make a mental note to reread this at least once a day, and to maybe print it out and stick it in my classmates’ mailboxes.

My last question for Dean Kochevar is whether there is something most students don’t know about her that she’d like to share. “Oh, just how proud a mom I am!” she says, laughing. “I just think my kids are the greatest thing in the world!” She reaffirms how vital it is to keep talking about work-life balance in our profession. “Be sure that you don’t lose sight of the importance of your family, no matter what kind or how big,” she tells me. Her own children are “not youngsters anymore,” as she says, born in ’84 and ’88, “but I still make them chocolate chip cookies when I go to visit them!”

There is so much pride in her voice as she tells me about her family, and then goes on to mention her students once again: how she can’t help but be energized by the new first-years that come to the Cummings School every year, dreaming of careers that could go in a hundred different directions. “I get to have the fun over and over again of working with these very enthusiastic, smart people,” she says. “That’s a definite plus.” I think back to sitting in a lecture hall as one of those new students, astonished that the Dean would take the time to course-direct an entire class in my first year. I know now that anybody who works with her has the joy of discovering how much she genuinely cares about our learning, and how much time she has spent shaping this school around it.