In true West Texas fashion, Texas Tech University and its surrounding communities came together, overcame tremendous obstacles, and, against all odds, finally got the veterinary school they had waited so long for.
In 1971, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted for Texas Tech University to open a veterinary school; a seemingly impossible task at the time, which then took half a century to accomplish.
Dr. Tedd L. Mitchell, Texas Tech University System chancellor, said he had been president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center for four years by the time opening a veterinary school became feasible for the System.
It was not until the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015 that the System really began to research and develop momentum for the vet school, Mitchell said. It was then that he and a team of leaders from across the System – including then-chancellor, Robert Duncan – began working on the vet school initiative.
“We actually went and visited the three geographically closest vet schools to Amarillo: Colorado State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State,” Mitchell said. “All three of them are closer to Amarillo than College Station.”
After researching the different models of veterinary education and visiting with surrounding schools, the System chose the newest option to the veterinary medical world: the distributive model.
“If you look at the vet schools that have begun in the last four years, it’s the preferred model, because it keeps your own overhead low, and it really doesn’t put you in competition,” Mitchell said. “In fact, quite the contrary, your local veterinarians become your faculty members, and they love it.”
Having prior experience using this teaching model at TTUHSC, the team was ready to move forward with the vet school initiative by advocating to the community, industry leaders, accrediting agencies and legislative officials, Mitchell said.
Part of this team of advocates was Guy Loneragan, BVSc, Ph.D., who is now dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine. Loneragan said he believes the veterinary school could change the landscape of veterinary medical education by creating highly sought after, skillful graduates who are business-minded and have the desire to serve rural populations.
“To me,” Loneragan said, “it means the opportunity to help and contribute to building something that will provide access to high quality, affordable education, which will influence and impact students and rural Texas for generations to come.”
The Tipping Point
On Jan. 8, 2019, the 86th Texas Legislature began and set into motion the most historic legislative session for the Texas Tech University System since the institution’s formation in 1996.
Mitchell said municipalities from across West Texas put aside their differences and came together to sign a letter to governmental officials expressing their support for the veterinary school in Amarillo.
“I’d be willing to bet you that has never happened in the history of the legislature,” Mitchell said.
The Texas Legislature’s Conference Committee voted to include $17.35 million in the state’s budget to establish Texas Tech’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo on May 17.
Just one month later, on June 15, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the state budget into law, thus appropriating $17.35 million for the operational needs of the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Loneragan said he attributes Texas Tech’s success at the 86th Texas Legislature to the System’s great leadership and the overwhelming community support they received.
“For the vet school, it’s possible because all of those great leaders moved forward in a very unified approach to make this happen,” Loneragan said.
However, during this legislative session, the System was not only focused on the veterinary school, they were also advocating for the addition of a dental school at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.
With the addition of a veterinary school and a dental school, the Texas Tech University System will become one of only nine institutions in the nation to have programs in undergraduate, medical, law, nursing, pharmacy, dental and veterinary education.
“The United States has over 3,000 universities, and there are nine that have the compliment that we have…” Mitchell said. “I think, then, from a System perspective, it puts you in an extraordinarily elite position, nationally.”
Three months after receiving the governor’s signature, on Sept. 19, the System broke ground in Amarillo to signify the start of construction on facilities for the School of Veterinary Medicine.
In a little over a month, the first of many hiring announcements was made on Oct. 30, when Dr. John Dascanio, a large-animal veterinarian, was hired to serve as senior associate dean for the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Then, on Dec. 11, three months after the groundbreaking, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the proposed Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) degree, putting Texas Tech’s vet school on the home stretch.
Throughout this process, Mitchell said he and the System team tried to impress upon people all over the state how important this initiative was for everyone.
“It was not an issue about West Texas, it really was an issue that would impact the entire state.”Chancellor Tedd L. Mitchell, M.D.
“We tried to make sure that people understood this was not an issue about Amarillo, it was not an issue about the panhandle, it was not an issue about West Texas, it really was an issue that would impact the entire state,” Mitchell said.
The most rewarding part of this journey for Mitchell was watching the different communities come together for something bigger than themselves, he said.
“At a time when politics have become extremely divisive, people still, at the end of the day, pulled together for something that was good for the state of Texas,” Mitchell said.
The Real Work Begins
On Jan. 22, 2020, the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents approved the final budget for the project. With this approval, the next step in the process can begin, Mitchell said.
“Moving forward, the ball is squarely in the court of Dr. Loneragan when it comes to the curriculum and the academics,” Mitchell said.
The School of Veterinary Medicine had hired a total of seven staff members as of March 3, 2020, Loneragan said, including Dr. Bethany Schilling, a mixed-animal veterinarian, as assistant professor in general veterinary practice, and Dr. Britt Conklin, a world-renowned horse veterinarian, as associate dean for clinical programs. By the end of March or early April he said he expected to have finished interviewing candidates for 11 more positions.
“We anticipate by the end of this calendar year we will have 15 to 20 faculty on board and getting ready to start delivering the curriculum,” Loneragan said.
While the hiring process continues, Loneragan said they will also be working with the American Veterinary Medical Association for the accreditation process. He said they will do a site visit of the program at the end of June and should hear the outcome around the end of September, early October.
If approved by the accreditors, Loneragan said they can then begin the admissions process by reviewing applications and inviting students to campus in October. Once they send out offer letters, he said, the next big step is to prepare for orientation and the beginning of classes in August of 2021.
Mitchell said he is looking forward to the day that the School of Veterinary Medicine opens its doors to its inaugural class.
“In August of 2021, we’re going to have 60 new students running around up in Amarillo with our pharmacy students, with our med students, with the nursing students, with the health profession students that we have up there,” Mitchell said excitedly, “and it’ll be a brand new day, and it’ll be a big celebration for everybody when that happens.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Loneragan.
“I am most looking forward to the first class of students – seeing them and getting to interact with them – and seeing the faculty start to teach the students,” Loneragan said.
But the chancellor and the dean are not the only ones excited for that historic first day of school. Conner Chambers of Henrietta, Texas, is the lone Red Raider in a family of Aggies. He is a junior animal science pre-vet major at Texas Tech, and said he cannot wait to apply to the School of Veterinary Medicine.
“I’m ready to apply,” Chambers said. “I’m ready to get there, and it means a lot to me that Texas Tech is supporting this so much for the dreams of students like myself.”
Chambers said having the opportunity to attend veterinary school in the epicenter of the beef cattle industry means his educational experience will be geared specifically toward his goal of becoming a large animal veterinarian.
“Being someone who wants to work on food animals in small town communities, it means a lot that Texas Tech is supporting that dream specifically,” Chambers said.
He said the possibility of being one of 60 students chosen to attend Texas Tech’s School of Veterinary Medicine is both exciting and nerve-wracking.
“It’s definitely exciting to be part of the first class to go through a new vet school because that’s something not very many people get to say,” Chambers said.
Mitchell said that once the first class of students arrive, there is just one more milestone left to reach. One that he said was the most important by far.
“I think the day that we have our first students graduate, that’ll be the day that you know all of the work, all of the efforts, all of the heartache, all of the long nights, all of the long days, that’s when you’ll know it was worth it — with that first set of graduates,” Mitchell said with a smile.