The “Politics” of Higher Education: A look at the TTU Vet School and the future

KAMC News

The 86th Texas Legislature begins in just a few months, and the Texas Tech University System has a lot on its agenda.

Three major initiatives top the list: a dental school in El Paso, the Mental Health Institute, and a School of Veterinary Medicine planned for Amarillo. However, recent changes in leadership had many in the Texas Tech community concerned.

The proposed TTU vet school would be just the second in the state of Texas, other than Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The initiative was championed by former Chancellor Robert Duncan before his sudden resignation in August.

Former TTU System Regent Windy Sitton said she had heard talks of a vet school for years, even during her time on the board. 

“We could never get it off the ground, and I think it’s because A&M was a very powerful school, and a wonderful school, but a good lobby,” Sitton said. “The thing that’s so interesting to me is that Bob Duncan becomes chancellor, and he is securing the vet school. He got it done, where the rest of us couldn’t get it done. So he’s getting the vet school done, and we oust him?”

Many people blamed former board Chairman L. Frederick Francis. In fact, a former mayor of Amarillo even campaigned for his firing. Ultimately, Francis stepped away from his role as chairman on Oct. 4.

Sitton said she couldn’t speak to that and “didn’t have all the facts,” but added she felt blindsided by the decision to change leadership. 

“He [Robert Duncan] never failed. It’s not every day you find someone you trust like that,” Sitton said. “I think that’s another reason people are going, ‘What? We let Bob Duncan go?'”

How political is higher education?

In an August interview with EverythingLubbock.com, State Senator Charles Perry said he believed there were outside forces influencing some decisions.

“This is about the vet school, and it’s about a chancellor at another university that has a long political career with a lot of political power,” Perry said. “You can’t take politics out of the politics.”

According to campaign finance records from the Texas Ethics Commission, every single TTU System regent donated at least $2,000 to Texans for Greg Abbott, as of August 2018. All but one had donated to the governor — either Gov. Abbott or former Gov. Rick Perry — who had appointed them to the board.

The data showed this to be common practice across the state, with all but one University of Texas System regent and one Texas A&M System regent donating to Texans for Governor Abbott. The contributions from UT regents ranged from more than $1.6 million to $4,500. For A&M, we found donations from regents for more than $1 million to around $7,700. 

These totals do not include any donations made to other entities or made by companies, but only donations and other event expenses made under the regent’s name to Texans for Greg Abbott, according to TEC data. 

CORRECTION: In the original story that aired, a donation amount was listed for Chris Huckabee as $3,150,000. That amount has been corrected to $315,000. A donation amount was listed for J. Michael Lewis for $1,435,000. That amount has been corrected to $143,500. A donation amount was listed for John Walker as $3,085,000. That amount has been corrected to $308,500. We apologize for the error. 

Sitton said the positions were inherently political, as every regent is appointed by the governor.

“The commonality that all regents have is the care concern for Texas Tech, and every decision made by a regent should have that goal in mind,” she said. “The Board of Regents better always act in the best interest of Texas Tech.” 

In a news conference in early October, the Board of Regents said they could not divulge any details of their conversations concerning former Chancellor Duncan, as they happened in “executive session.” However, upon naming Dr. Tedd Mitchell as the new chancellor, they ensured the Tech community the mission was still the same. 

“So we may have reshuffled chairs just a little bit, but think we’ve got all of the other people that have been behind the scenes working to make Texas Tech everything it can be,” TTU Board of Regents Chairman Tim Lancaster said. 

Upon visiting Lubbock shortly after the change in leadership, Gov. Abbott reiterated his support for the creation of a new vet school.

Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Texas A&M University System said, “We still feel another vet school is not necessary. We can serve the needs of our state with our new building and with West Texas A&M.” 

Diversity on the board

During her interview with EverythingLubbock.com, Windy Sitton also wondered what the decisions would look like if the board was more diverse, with more minorities and women considered.  

Sitton is one of 12 women to sit on the TTU Board of Regents since the inception of the board in 1923. The makeup of the boards at the UT and A&M Systems weren’t far off. Since around 1881, UT had 20 women sit on the board while A&M had 11. 

Sitton went on, “I definitely think a Lubbock resident should be on the board.” She added that gave her a special insight and perspective. 

Chairman Lancaster addressed these concerns, saying the governor appoints regents to be representative of the student body and where they come from across Texas. Right now, there are regents from Dallas, Houston, Ft. Worth, Abilene, Austin, El Paso and Midland. Lancaster noted, he will be moving to serve from Lubbock come January 2019.

What’s next? 

We spoke with Robert Duncan at a reception a few weeks ago for the new Chancellor Dr. Tedd Mitchell. Duncan said his successor is the “man for the job,” and he will assist Texas Tech as a “volunteer” advocate heading into the next legislative session. 

The Board said they feel confident in their plans for the vet school moving forward. 

“If and when that vet school comes on board, I will be the first in line to name that after Senator Bob Duncan,” Sitton said. 

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