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Focused On the Future

In July 2022, Dr. Julie A. Schornack was appointed as the second President of Marshall B. Ketchum University, establishing a new era in the history of the health care educational institution which commenced over 100 years ago. The official appointment of Dr. Schornack as MBKU’s first woman President on April 27, 2023, is truly significant, but that significance goes beyond gender: On one hand, it ensures stable and exceptional leadership for MBKU, for which there is already great precedent, and on the other hand, it signifies a milestone on the path to a future where leadership positions at every level faithfully represent the multiplicity of demographics, perspectives and experiences that make institutions of higher education robust and vibrant.

Early on in her teaching career, Dr. Schornack received an evaluation from a student on which the observation was made that she was “not much of a lady.” For those who have the pleasure of knowing Dr. Schornack, it is not too difficult to guess what this misguided student was hinting at. Dr. Schornack’s enthusiasm and passion for her work are not subtle, nor are they disguised under any sexist notions about what is a “proper” way for a woman to behave. What you see with Dr. Schornack is what you get, and what you get is an infectious laugh, a deep conviction for her work and purpose, an expansive sense of humor, a fierce joy for the people who are her friends and colleagues, and of course, a long record of dedicated and deeply considered leadership at Southern California College of Optometry and MBKU.

Dr. Schornack is also an individual with a strong sense of pragmatism, rooted partly in her Midwestern upbringing near Chicago, where hard work and resourcefulness were prized above all else. For this reason, she might have been happy enough without the fanfare of a large inaugural ceremony and with no more than a passing mention of her becoming MBKU’s first woman President. She preferred to focus on continuing to build the University and navigate the challenges facing it. And while she herself has not changed with respect to this focus, her perspective has. One of the primary elements that changed it was hearing from other women – colleagues, faculty, students and her own daughters – about how much it meant to them.

“As much as things have improved in this country,” says Dr. Schornack, “When you look at the demographics of women in the position of president of a university, it’s still pretty low; under 20%. It is not 50/50! And so it is significant to faculty and especially students, and to subsequent generations from a role model standpoint, from a leadership standpoint, from the standpoint of them knowing they can do whatever they want. When I was growing up, it felt like there were two choices available to women: teacher or nurse. So to understand that there are many more choices is powerful and freeing. You know, it’s not like my family sits around every day telling me how great I am, but at one point my daughters both said, ‘We’re really proud of you.’ It hadn’t dawned on me that that would be a part of the conversation. But now I’m glad it is.”


Dr. Schornack has essentially spent her entire career in higher education, coming by the calling honestly — it was there almost from the beginning. As she advanced through the levels of her own schooling, she uncovered an ambition to teach at that very level; however, the ambition lasted for as long as it took her to move to the next one. A desire to be an elementary school teacher became a desire to be a high school teacher, before becoming a desire to be a college professor. Finally, she went to optometry school, and her true calling was realized.

She found optometry like so many others have. Volunteer work as an undergrad at Loyola University in Chicago — where she double-majored in biology and English — had convinced her that she wanted to pursue opportunities in health care, but when she asked a group of medical school residents whether they would choose the same path if given the  chance to do it all over again, not one of them said “yes.” Dr. Schornack took this as a sign that medical school would not be a good fit for her!

Providentially, her mother worked in an optometry office at the time, and when Dr. Schornack spent time there, eventually getting hired on a part-time basis, all the ways that optometry stands out as a field of practice came into focus. It was a means to have more control over one’s life and time, while remaining connected to a vital health care profession. After completing optometry school at Illinois College of Optometry, Dr. Schornack went to Pacific University to get a master’s in Education, in order to bolster her resume for the teaching job that remained at the heart of her ambition.

Upon completing her education, the first place that hired her was a small but storied optometry school in Fullerton, Calif., called Southern California College of Optometry (SCCO), and it is here that she has spent her entire career. “They took a chance on me,” Dr. Schornack says, when recalling her early time at SCCO. “I was committed to optometric education, but didn’t necessarily have a depth of knowledge in cornea and contact lens. Longtime and recently retired professor Tim Edrington mentored me that first year or two, and brought me along so that I had expertise in that area of optometry. That’s an opportunity that I got that probably wouldn’t happen today. They hired me for enthusiasm more than knowledge! You can catch up on the knowledge part, but you can’t teach genuine enthusiasm.”

Dr. Julie Schornack


From humble beginnings as an enthusiastic and passionate faculty member in the lecture halls, clinics and laboratories, to her oversight of clinical education and then to Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff for her predecessor Dr. Kevin L. Alexander, Dr. Schornack has spent 35 years being shaped by and helping to shape the character of SCCO and MBKU. Needless to say, this experience gives her a unique and well informed vantage point from her new spot behind the President’s desk.

“Having sat on the other side of this desk through three presidents,” she says, “I observed firsthand how the choices that are made set the direction of the University. Those are the things in my head as I approach important decisions that affect us moving forward. It deepens the perspective that you have, the perspective on who you are and on what’s best for this University.”

There are challenges in that regard confronting Dr. Schornack immediately, and two stand out. The first is centered around admissions and enrollment and what many admissions experts believe will be a steep drop-off in prospective students at the graduate level. Fewer people have children in the years around a recession, and the effects of the 2008 financial crisis in this context will soon be felt. Another factor contributing to this problem is the global questioning about the value of an undergraduate education. When fewer people choose to attend college, it quite naturally leads to fewer people choosing to attend  graduate schools. “MBKU is really good at capturing applicants once they’ve already decided what their profession is going to be,” says Dr. Schornack. “What we need to do is talk to people before they’ve made up their mind about what they want to do when they grow up, and offer our professions as opportunities. We want to continue to attract capable and diverse students who are going to be fulfilled serving others in the health care arena, in the midst of a lot of competition from other schools.”

The other significant challenge is the continuous need to maintain, expand and renovate where necessary the physical campus and facilities of Marshall B. Ketchum University, beginning with a building that has patiently waited its turn the last decade while vital accommodations were made for MBKU’s two new programs. The Clinical and Basic Science Building, which is at the heart of every SCCO student’s didactic education, is next in line for an overhaul. The difficulty, of course, is cost. “It is an expensive and challenging endeavor,” explains Dr. Schornack. “We are a nonprofit university. So when we talk about special projects, and expensive upkeep and new instrumentation, we often have to rely on the benevolence of others to help us do that, because our yearly operating budget can’t possibly fulfill all those needs. My challenge is to tell that story well, so everyone understands how difficult it is to be a nonprofit, and how, without external help, there are a lot of things that can’t be addressed.”


In her inauguration speech, Dr. Schornack articulated her philosophy of presidential leadership as a matrix of three focal points: People, Places and Programs. All of her motivations for guiding MBKU to its next chapter are rooted in these three aspects of the University, and her aim is for them to thrive. “I would like to make sure that our people here feel supported: in the workplace, educationally and supported to be productive,” she explains. “And then I want us to do our very best job to constantly reflect on our programs and say, how could we do better? How could we serve the students better? How could we enhance their education, enhance the experience, enhance the feeling that they walk away with so that they want to give back to the profession?”

In many ways this is a preservation of the culture that is already embodied at MBKU, as the generosity of its alumni is well documented and extremely varied. “Giving back to the profession can be them giving back academically, giving back financially or giving back by contributing to the body of knowledge by doing research in their profession,” says Dr. Schornack.

And at the heart of Dr. Schornack’s long-time service to SCCO and MBKU is the students, and the transformation they experience between their first class and their graduation. “Transformation” is a word that showed up quite a bit in Dr. Schornack’s inauguration speech, and it shows up a lot in conversation when she speaks about her aspirations for the University. She sees it as perhaps the fundamental byproduct of the education students receive at MKBU.

“When students come to us, they have been focused on themselves their whole lives, and rightly so,” she says. “They go through school and undergrad, and they’re trying to build their life, and to build their brain, and their sense of who they are. And then as they approach health care education, we ask them to transform into someone who is going to spend their life caring for others. And their focus moves outward, to other people. Now, it’s not about their own well-being and progress, but about the well-being and progress of others. And that’s the transformation.

“Some of our students may have already started that journey, but once they get here, they don’t have a choice! And it’s not just the knowledge that we pour in their heads to care for people. Hopefully it’s the attitude and the philosophy of care that they receive as well.”



Establishing that larger sense of purpose — and staying true to it — in a career in higher education and health care is not always easy, so it is best to have help along the way. A number of years ago, Dr. Schornack began meeting with a group of women, all fellow optometrists and health care professionals, who were at similar ages and on similar career paths with each other. They got together once or twice a year to share stories and lift each other up as they navigated through both the successful and unsuccessful parts of their careers, and that support has been a powerful component of Dr. Schornack’s achievement. Many of those women became deans, presidents, in charge of their own firms and consulting groups, or moved outside the profession of optometry into research. No matter what, they have all stayed connected and proud of each other.

Dr. Lynn Gabriel, current chair of the Board of Trustees of MBKU, is an alumna of SCCO, the first woman president of the California Optometric Association, and a friend of Dr. Schornack. Needless to say, she could not be happier to see Dr. Schornack’s accomplishment. “There is nobody who better understands than Julie Schornack what the University has gone through to get where we are, here in our 10th year,” says Dr. Gabriel. “She totally understands the principles that SCCO has always used to educate its students, so she is well-equipped to help the School of PA Studies and the College of Pharmacy build upon that history of turning out really wonderful, caring health care professionals. As a leader, she is bright and clear-thinking, very compassionate, and absolutely loves our students. She always gives 110%, and that’s the kind of leader that makes you want to give more than 100%!”


Toward the end of her inauguration speech, Dr. Schornack hit a snag. Some part of her written remarks had absconded somehow, and after making this discovery, and then a brief moment of deliberation, Dr. Schornack announced, “There’s something missing here, but I’m just going to make it up.” She then went into storytelling mode, her personality and good humor shining through, and came out on the other side of the moment — having capably brought everyone along with her — with aplomb.

One imagines that what happened during this small glitch in her speech will be a foretaste of Dr. Julie A. Schornack’s leadership as President of Marshall B. Ketchum University. An unexpected challenge represents not an insurmountable roadblock but an opportunity to pivot toward a strength, to remain confident in the moment, and confident as well in the generosity of the gathered community and its ethos of abundant support.

And ultimately the greatest strength of MBKU is its people, and the community-oriented culture that welcomes, cares for and challenges those people, before sending them out or bringing them back in to impact the world through leadership in the health care professions. Maintaining and strengthening this culture is what Dr. Schornack ultimately hopes her legacy as President of MBKU will be.

“President Alexander spent 15 years building a university,” she says. “From a single discipline he built a university both figuratively and literally. We added programs, we added buildings, we added infrastructure. I feel like what I have to do is continue the project, put time and effort into weaving together the programs and developing a university culture, to create a continuous, integrated university feel, so that each of the programs is appreciative of the other and recognizes that they’re not alone on this campus. We want to be respectful of individual programs, but also focus on the good of the many! It’s an ongoing conversation with the programs and with my executive group, to say how do we bring people together? How do we increase knowledge and awareness of others, what their work is, what is important to them and who they are as people? It is incumbent on us to create those experiences. And I would hope that at the end of my time here, people respect the decisions that I’ve made, that they realize I was trying to do everything in the best interests of the University, and that I worked to build people up and to integrate the programs and to make them stronger. That would be a good legacy!”