‘He’s done a fantastic job of recruiting’
When you ask Dr. Dennis French to explain his role as department head, he can do it in five words: “Helping good people become famous.”
Having achieved the rank of full professor and served as president of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, he now turns his career focus to a simple but ambitious to-do list that explains how he, as department head, intends to help good people achieve success:
- Hire the right people, who can be productive and happy at Illinois.
- Garner international recognition for the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine.
Dr. French, who has overseen the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine in an interim capacity for the past two years, will officially become department head pending approval by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees at its May 17 meeting.
“Dr. French has been a tireless advocate of our students, faculty, and programs throughout his tenure at Illinois,” says Dean Peter Constable. “He is always accessible and meets everyone with a genuine welcome and interest. He’s done a fantastic job of recruiting top-tier faculty to his department over the past two years and I’m sure he’ll continue to grow a talented and cohesive team.”
Long-Time Commitment to Veterinary Academia
It’s been 40 years since Dr. French earned his veterinary degree from the University of Minnesota. Most of his career has been spent in academia. For him, this realm has a unique and compelling differentiator: “What keeps us going in academia is being able to ask ‘why?’ ”
His academic career began with nearly 30 years at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine with a clinical specialty in equine practice and herd health. In 2009 Dr. French was hired by Illinois to lead the Food Animal Medicine and Surgery section.
He’s seen a lot of changes in veterinary medicine.
“I remember the days of dipping radiographs in solution. When automated processors came along they were ‘da bomb.com.’ Equine practitioners drove the transition to digital radiography because of their need for speedy radiographs—32 images—to go into repository reports for weanling and yearling sales.”
He also sees an exciting future ahead for veterinary medicine. Research into the microbiome is poised to advance so many areas, he says, pointing to departmental faculty in food animal production, ophthalmology, and small animal internal medicine who are investigating the microbiome.
Achievements as Interim Head
As interim head, Dr. French has worked with Dr. Lois Hoyer, associate dean for research and advanced studies, to create shared research space in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Having research resources in close proximity to their service and teaching space promotes discovery in the department. Both leaders have tremendous respect for the clinician-scientists who excel in three demanding roles: specialists, teachers, and researchers.
Dr. Jodi Flaws, interim head for the Department of Comparative Biosciences, has enjoyed working with Dr. French within the college as well as on campus committees. “I’m happy he’s been named permanent head,” she says. “I look forward to continuing to work with him.”
As the first item on his to-do list indicates, recruiting new faculty members to match the growth in his department has been and will continue to be a priority for Dr. French. The competion for outstanding faculty is fierce, especially given the demand in private practice. Dr. French and Dr. Julia Whittington, chief of staff for the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, are teaming up on faculty recruitment, even venturing into direct mail campaigns for small animal surgeons and radiologists.
There are also significant facility improvements on the horizon, with new wings in the works for the Small Animal Clinic to house a linear accelerator and a state-of-the-art small animal surgery suite. Primary care services, including the zoo medicine service and the shelter medicine program, will be relocated to the new Veterinary Medicine South Clinic, and vacated space in the hospital will be renovated for an expanded emergency and critical care service.
An Attitude for Success
Leading through challenging periods of change is not new for Dr. French.
While at Louisiana State, Dr. French served as president of the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association, an organization that had some sharp cultural divides. He says listening is a critical leadership skill.
“I listened to everyone and attended all the meetings, north and south,” he says. Years later, one of the LVMA members who had been a vocal detractor made a remark that Dr. French counts among his personal achievements. “I really appreciate what you’ve done,” said the man. “You’ve got skin as thick as an alligator.”
Dr. French believes success can be attributed to attitude. His father instilled an important tenet: “Learn something from everybody you come in contact with.”
“Everybody’s got a talent and something to offer,” he says. “You never know when you might need that.”
He also never loses sight of the fact that veterinary medicine is a service profession. “Students are our No. 1 customer,” he says. “We should all be asking ourselves ‘How do I make someone else’s life better?’ ”
With clinical rotations throughout the four-year DVM program at Illinois, the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine is heavily involved in teaching veterinary students. Dr. French has instituted student town halls as a way to learn about and address issues where he can make a difference in students’ lives.
“You can’t fix things you don’t know about,” he observes. “I want to know first before the problem has a chance to grow.”
He and his wife Nina have also been philanthropic leaders at the college, serving on the advisory board for the Wildlife Medical Clinic. The ecological conservation side of the program expanded his understanding of the One Health concept, and he’s always willing to listen and learn something new.
“This profession has been great for me,” he concludes. “I get excited to come to work. There’s a new challenge every day.”