As he settles into his new office, Dr. Bob Onders shares his background, thoughts on his new positions and the university’s future.
Prior to accepting the Interim President position, Dr. Bob Onders was the Medical Director of Community and Health Systems Improvement at ANTHC, a role that gave him insight into the inner-workings of the company. Now he will lead the APU-ANTHC partnership into its next phase of development as the university searches for a new president to succeed Dr. Don Bantz.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Kent State University in Ohio. I did a combined six year B.S./M.D. program, so you do two years at Kent State and then go directly into medical school and do four years with Northeast Ohio Medical University. It’s a combined degree at the end of the six years. I worked my first residency with University of Wyoming and worked in the emergency department in West Park Hospital in Cody, Wyoming and then as a physician with Kodiak Area Native Association. Later I was an associate professor at University of Wyoming, but that was while I was going to law school. I was half-time teaching, half-time student. I actually finished up my law degree here with Seattle University at APU — I just graduated in June.
What prompted you to go back to law school?
As I found myself doing more administrative work, I decided I needed more skill sets. The University of Wyoming offered a joint Juris Doctorate and Masters of Public Administration program. You take both simultaneously. I thought that would give me the skills I needed to work in various administrations.
What did your job at ANTHC entail?
A lot of program administration work in health care. I oversaw some of the health program, like the behavioral, dental and community health aid programs and our distance learning network.
What’s your fondest memory from school?
Ever? Man. I would say the most interesting was when I was going to law school, because the University of Wyoming is a fairly big campus. The law school was at one end of campus and the college of health science was at the other end. I’d take classes at the law school and was teaching gross anatomy to the medical students on the other side of campus. I saw the contrast of the two schools, which made for interesting times. I think the perspectives of students in health sciences are different than those of students in the law school. Gross anatomy is very different from contract law. Having both of those in the same day was interesting.
Did anyone else in your law class have a background in medicine or were you a rarity?
No, I was the only one. Although, I think there are becoming more and more M.D./J.D.’s. I think some medical schools are offering joint degrees, because how the health system is run is related to rules and regulations. So having some of that knowledge helps.
When you were a college student, who was the most influential person in your life?
My son. I’d say it was quite the contrast in law school, having a family, versus when I started medical school. I started medical school when I was 20, when I started law school I was 40. Having a child influences your priorities. I think it puts everything into a different perspective about what’s important in life.
How do you think your experiences at ANTHC will lend themselves to your new position?
I think we do a lot of education over there, so there’s a lot of connections already related to education. Having experience with that organization will make this collaborative partnership easier, too. And, I did a lot of business administration at that job, which is something any university needs to do and do well in order to succeed.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I would say more trying to remove obstacles to allow people to do work at their highest levels. I think often when people struggle to work at their highest level it’s because of obstacles in their way, whether that’s resources, financial, human, facilities, or something else. As a leader, you need to give people the space to do what they’re good at.
What are some of your first orders of business?
A lot of it is business operations: ensuring that APU remains financially stable, addressing any facility deficits and trying to see where there are opportunities for curriculum to expand. And, I think, getting to know the culture of APU and getting to know what is working well here so as we look to grow we don’t remove those things. We have a prioritized list started, and right now that list is over 50 different things. I think right now it’s more about gathering information and prioritizing what’s out there to fix. Because we can’t fix everything at once. It’ll take years to address some of the issues. I think we need a good list to start with. And everyone is helping with that. We’ve had many, many meetings and I anticipate many, many more. Many of the employees and students have started giving feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. It’s a collaborative effort.
What are you goals for your time as interim president?
I think this partnership can facilitate APU to be a college that’s unlike any other in the world. I really believe this college has a perfect location, a good base of curriculum, and a good culture. It just hasn’t had the resources necessarily to do all the things it could do. If we can create curriculum that serves the workforce of the Alaska tribal health system and has a very strong depth, this college will continue to grow.
What are your thoughts on balancing growth with maintaining quality?
We need to keep what we know is good. The curriculum we’re looking at expanding are programs already existing, like the community health aid program. That’s been going on for 50 plus years. There’s no risk of that kind of growth deteriorating anything else that’s currently existing. And when you bring more resources and more people, it’ll make the experience greater.
You seem to work a lot. Do you have free time and what do you do with it?
I’m busy. But I like to alpine ski, so I like it when it snows. I like to hike and ski. I especially like to ski with my 11-year-old son at Alyeska. He’s a good skier – faster than me. I think I can still keep up, though. And I’m in Alaska because I love doing anything outside. So, if I have time it’s going to be spent biking, skiing, running, hunting, whatever is close and available.
What are some of the last few books you’ve read? Movies you’ve watched?
I’m currently reading “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” by Jim Harrison. And with my son I’m reading “Fools Crow” by James Welch. I don’t watch many movies. I don’t watch much TV aside from sporting events. I grew up in Cleveland, so I watch the Cleveland Cavs and Browns, though they’re a little hard to root for.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I am the ninth child in a family of ten.
What are you most excited about for this job?
I think it’s about opportunities. It’s an incredible time to be here. I’m excited to help create more resources for the students, faculty and staff to make this an even more amazing university.