Long before his days as department head of the Large Animal Clinical Sciences (VLCS) department at the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), Dr. Allen Roussel was simply a young man fascinated by animals. “When I was growing up, we had cats and one old hunting dog, so that’s what got me interested in veterinary medicine,” said Roussel. Coming from a family focused on human medicine-his father worked in the medical department of an oil company and his mother was a nurse-Roussel’s decision to become a large animal veterinarian came as a surprise. “I actually knew nothing about cattle and large animals when I was growing up,” he said.
Roussel made up for this lack of experience by joining the first graduating class of Louisiana State University’s (LSU) School of Veterinary Medicine. Sheer determination and extracurricular opportunities supplemented Roussel’s coursework and helped him prepare for a career as a large animal veterinarian. “I spent hours and hours and hours in an auction barn, just sitting and watching cattle come through, guessing the weights and seeing what they did,” the Baton Rouge native said, adding that he also worked for the faculty member who was responsible for LSU’s teaching herds. Roussel took every opportunity to work with cattle at the university or on cattle farms of friends and relatives.
Early in his career, Roussel worked in two veterinary practices over a five-year period and pictured himself spending his life as a rural veterinary practitioner. He was a partner in one practice for three years. Even though he thought he would be in rural practice his entire career, something prompted his first employer to presciently predict that Roussel would eventually become a professor.
After completing a residency and master’s at Purdue University, Roussel joined the faculty at Virginia Tech before starting his long career at Texas A&M; University.
Extensive Administrative Experience
Roussel’s extensive vita includes nearly two decades of administrative experience. He first joined the administrative ranks at the CVM as VLCS (then called VLAM) associate department head in 1997. He also served as president of the Southwest Veterinary Symposium, the Comparative Gastroenterology Society, and the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine’s Large Animal Specialty.
During his administrative tenure at the CVM, Roussel learned much about what it means to be in administration, the first being a realization of what constitutes personal success in higher education. “Leadership positions, administrative positions, and being successful should not be considered the same thing,” Roussel said. “If you look around this college, I would say that most of the people who have the greatest careers, reputations, and accomplishments certainly aren’t administrators. In fact many of these people are much more suited for non-administrative roles, so we shouldn’t think that an administrative role is the next step up to excellence.”
The second observation about administration that Roussel has made is the different roles for different administrators. “The dean and the university president have a major role in public outreach, interacting with the public all the time,” Roussel said, adding that these types of interactions don’t come as easily to him. “I’m more of a chief operating officer than a chief executive officer. I actually enjoy helping the university function internally, establishing policies, not to make rules, but to facilitate the success of all faculty members in a complex and, sometimes, bureaucratically burdensome environment.”
The third realization was that a department head could not fill all of the roles of the job without help. “When I was associate department head, (then department head) Dr. William Moyer would share a lot of things with me. You’d go nuts if you don’t have somebody to confide in,” Roussel said. “Many times as associate department head, I sat there and listened to him talk and I went, ‘Mmmmmm.’ When it was over, he thanked me so much for helping him. I didn’t do anything but listen and nod my head every now and then. But, I realize now that this is what he needed.”
Because of increasing administrative demands, Roussel relies on a leadership team that he created when he took over as department head. “First it takes a great administrative staff, which I have been fortunate to have. Then, it takes other faculty members with special talents and expertise to fill in the gaps in the department head’s competencies. I think one of the important skills of a successful leader is the wisdom to delegate,” he said. “When I took over the role of department head, I appointed four assistant and associate department heads, to whom I turned for advice and help. I think the faculty members in our department are much, much better off having five people working with them than only one. There’s no way I can do all the stuff that is required by myself.”
Witnessing the Changing CVM
In addition to changes in administration, Roussel has seen many CVM accomplishments over the years. A decade after moving to College Station, he saw the groundbreaking work of Texas A&M; University researchers when they cloned a calf in 1997, followed by a pig and goat in 2001, a cat in 2002, and a deer in 2003. He has also seen the CVM’s graduating classes continue to consistently earn high passing rates on the National Board of Veterinary Examiners and the State of Texas Board, while the college remains in the top echelon of national and international programs.
Even with this continuous advancement, Roussel is well aware of the numerous challenges facing the CVM due to shifting attitudes about the role of veterinary medicine. For instance, the emergence of specialty veterinary hospitals around the state forced Texas A&M; to reevaluate its practice. “We no longer have the luxury of being the only referral practice in Texas,” Roussel said. “While we were rather slow to respond to that change, I think we have made substantial progress in the last decade by becoming more customer-oriented toward our referring practitioners and our clients, both of whom have a choice when it comes to veterinary specialty hospitals.”
The long-time administrator of the VLCS has also seen significant demographic changes in the college. Roussel remembers when the department hired its first female faculty member in the late 1980s; now, women make up 40 percent of the VLCS faculty and 80 percent of the house officers. Classes are increasingly filled with female students, and fewer students have a background in agriculture.
Roussel also noted that the continuing emergence of new technology, both within and beyond veterinary medicine, offers tremendous opportunities for faculty and students. “I remember standing out in the hospital and hearing a crackly voice come over the loudspeaker, competing with the noises from horses, cattle, and sparrows. Immediately after the voice ceased, everyone began asking the person next to them, ‘What did she say?'” Roussel said. “Now we all carry cell phones that not only get phone calls, but also let us surf the Internet, where we can gain access to nearly every veterinary and medical journal in the world instantaneously, while standing in a stall. Medical records are almost completely electronic, laboratory results appear the instant the test is completed, and radiographs are available for viewing instantaneously, and the image can be manipulated on the screen.”
As these changes emerge, Roussel’s steady temperament and firm guidance have helped VLCS-which is one of CVM’s largest departments-remain on course.
Having announced his plan to step down from the department head position in 2016, Roussel plans to continue teaching and mentoring young faculty members. “I’m looking forward to trying to help less-experienced faculty members in whatever way that I can,” he said.