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50 Years in the Making

Chancellor Tedd L. Mitchell, M.D. speaks to the media
Chancellor Tedd L. Mitchell, M.D. spoke to the media about the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board commissioner’s visit to the Texas Tech University System in March.

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.

Gaining Momentum

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.

Dr. Guy Loneragan looks at the construction plan for the School of Veterinary Medicine with Project Manager Redha Gheraba
Dr. Guy Loneragan, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, looks over the facility’s plan with the project manager, Redha Gheraba.

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.

A rendering of the Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine.
The School of Veterinary Medicine headquarters will be located on the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center campus in Amarillo. Photo courtesy of Texas Tech University.

Looking Ahead

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.

Conner Chambers stands outside of the animal science building.
Conner Chambers, a prospective School of Veterinary Medicine student, is the president of Texas Tech’s Pre-Vet Society, one of the largest student organizations in CASNR.

“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.

“One Health” Solution to Veterinary Shortage

The TTUHSC in Amarillo will be tightly connected allowing veterinary and health professional students to mingle and collaborate which will strengthen their education.

exas leads the nation in livestock production with 95 percent of the beef market and 70 percent of milk production residing in the Texas Panhandle, according to Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine. To ensure these industries, as well as the livestock, remain healthy and productive, veterinarians are essential.

According to the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine, 40 percent of Texan veterinarians in rural communities are over the age of 60 and are anticipated to leave the profession within the next 10 years.

Ronald Warner, D.V.M., Ph.D., officially retired from Texas Tech in 2013 but continues to serve as the Texas Tech University Health Science Center representative and epidemiologist consultant for the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine. Warner says it is critical to prepare more students to provide veterinary services in Texas.

“Most of the veterinary workforce out here in rural Texas, west of I-35, are my age,” Warner said. “They’ve been out there, and they’re getting ready to retire, and the young folks are not coming back out to practice.”

Texas Tech is developing Texas’ first veterinary school in more than 100 years to address the shortage of veterinarians in rural and agricultural communities. The plan is establish the school at the Texas Tech Health Science Center in Amarillo, Texas, according to the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine.

Warner recalls when he first heard about the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine, “I thought we should probably be thinking along those lines there’s been a discussion in and out of the veterinary circle about the lack of large animal practitioners,” Warner said.

Tiffanie Brooks, D.V.M., is the attending veterinarian and director for Animal Care Services on the Texas Tech campus. Brooks also serves as an instructor of veterinary medicine for the Department of Animal and Food Science and agrees Texas Tech can support this need through its new veterinary school.

“I’m seeing local veterinarians who are my friends in rural practices in this area that cannot get associates here,” Brooks said.

How Will Texas Tech Meet the demand?

Guy Loneragan, BVSc, Ph.D., has played an influential role in developing the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine since 2014. At Texas Tech, Loneragan is an epidemiologist and professor of food safety and public health in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

“The goal of the vet school is to produce veterinarians to work with small, agricultural and regional centers across Texas,” Loneragan said, “not just West Texas, but all across Texas, East Texas, south and on the border.”

The Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine model is built on the success of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Over the past seven years this program has addressed the critical need of veterinarians in rural areas with 98 percent of graduates staying in the region and 63 percent working in rural private practices.

According to Warner, this new model will not have a centralized teaching hospital.  On top of creating curriculum and working on facility plans, a part of his involvement has been finding clinics to occupy fourth-year veterinary students.

Brooks recalls her experience as a fourth-year veterinary student, saying she was three students behind the surgery table and was not getting the hands-on experience to work on specialized types of surgeries or equipment.  

“If we’re going to attract the right kind of students, and if we’re going to show them what rural practices are like, and the rewards of being part of a smaller community, we’re going to have to train them in those settings,” Warner said.

Brooks believes future veterinary graduates will learn more about real life and graduate with more confidence through this new model.

One Health Underscores Benefit

According to Texas Tech Today, the
TTUHSC in Amarillo serves more than
43,000 patients each year.

According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, the “one health” initiative collaborates and communicates all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment worldwide.

With the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine at the TTUHSC campus in Amarillo,  the “one health” initiative will be fostered through research and collaboration.

According to Warner, the hope is the significance of “one health” will be ingrained in these veterinary students from the very beginning. Loneragan said the TTUHSC will be tightly connected allowing veterinary and health professional students to mingle and collaborate which will strengthen their education.

I’ve always been told and appreciate that the only real justification for veterinary medicine is to improve human health.

“The Texas Tech family excels at medical education, so we get to collaborate with the health science center and their expertise in medical education,” Loneragan said. “The veterinary school is a natural fit.”

The Texas Panhandle has access to the highest quality education since the TTUHSC in Amarillo serves more than 43,000 patients each year, according to Texas Tech Today.

“I’ve always been told and appreciate that the only real justification for veterinary medicine is to improve human health,” Warner said. “Whether it’s taking care of some dear widow’s poodle, that gives her emotional support, or providing safe economical meals on the table that are healthy.”

Excitement for the Next Generation

For Warner, the opportunity to work on something from the ground up–literally–has been a rewarding experience.

“I say to my wife, this is my capstone,” Warner said.

Loneragan expressed excitement about community support, the future of the school and current high school students who will be taking advantage of the new opportunities. He has also seen “unbridled” enthusiasm from industry stakeholders, rural communities and veterinarians for the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“For me, being a part of the foundation of something that will achieve things I can’t imagine today is really exciting,” Loneragan said.

The future of the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine means so much to current undergraduate students, too. One-hundred and fifty undergraduates classified as pre-vet in the department of animal and food science in the fall of 2018, Loneragan said.

“We have all these students coming to Tech betting their futures on this program, so we better be successful,” Loneragan said.

Expanding for the Industry: CASNR Develops New Department

As the agricultural industry grows, so does the need for industry leaders. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the demand for large animal veterinarians is increasing. This is primarily due to the fact that there are fewer practitioners trained to treat large population animals. This shortage is impacting rural areas in Texas which are dependent on the health of their livestock. The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University is hoping to meet this industry need with its development of the Department of Veterinary Science that will focus on population-preventative medicine.

“Most of the livestock [operations] in this area are fairly large and there are lots of animals,” Interim Department Chair of the Department of Veterinary Sciences, Michael Ballou Ph.D., said. “We will take more of a population-based approach to answering questions and solving problems.”

After a year of planning, CASNR named Ballou the interim department chair in 2017. A California native, Ballou found his way to Texas Tech in 2007 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 2002 and a doctorate in nutritional biology with an emphasis in immunology in 2007, both from the University of California-Davis. His nationally-recognized studies helped earn him the title of CASNR associate dean for research in 2014. His background in research has helped him in the development of the new department.

Aiding the Industry

The newly formed department is a graduate program only. The program will offer master’s and doctorate degrees, both of which are research-based degrees. The department will offer a traditional on-campus program and distance programs. The primary focus of the department will be to train individuals in the population and preventive veterinary medicine. The program plans to attract people interested in pursuing a research career with a primary focus in farm animal medicine.

Ballou said the veterinary sciences department will provide a greater focus on research and outreach efforts in food, animal, equine and wildlife health and well-being, and is intended to meet the educational and research needs of the animal-agricultural industry and the regional veterinary community.

We will take more of a population-based approach to answering questions and solving problems.

“Our focus is mainly going to be looking at the population data and understanding how we can improve the health of feedlot cattle and dairy cattle,” Ballou said. “Our research programs will depend on collecting data from local operations, and they have the data we need.”

Ballou said this program will stand out from the rest as it will focus more on population and preventative medicine in the livestock industry. This is different than clinical medicine, which would suggest diagnosing one sick animal. Population preventive medicine looks at overall livestock production and focuses on the incidence of disease, how many animals are getting sick, and what factors could contribute to that.

The department is going to have a focus on population and preventative medicine in the large livestock industry.

Setting the Standards

Ballou said he and his team want to focus on integrating all aspects of the college’s current departments into the curriculum. He said there will be portions built into the curriculum that will include natural resource management, agricultural communications, agricultural education, agricultural economics, animal and food science, and even public policy. The graduate program will focus on all aspects of the veterinary science industry, not just medicine.

“We are trying to look at ourselves as more of a centralized department, but also relying on and working with other departments in the college,” Ballou said.

Ballou said the online-based program will be particularly appealing to those already who have a doctorate of veterinary medicine and are practicing veterinarians. This program will allow them to continue to work in the industry and also gain new skills that they would not have learned in vet school.

“When you go to vet school, they teach you how to be a veterinarian,” Ballou said. “They teach you how to deal with one animal that comes in that is sick. They don’t teach you how to deal with large population data. So, being an online program, a veterinarian can be in practice and still articulate through this program in two years. It’s going to teach them different skill sets to understand large populations.”

Ballou said those with international veterinary degrees will also be attracted to the online program as they would be able to continue their research while abroad. This program will additionally target people who may have a Ph.D. and are working in the industry, such as animal or livestock health nutrition management, who want to understand how to look at health data as well.

What’s Next

The department is currently in the process of getting the required approval to open its doors to students in the next years. Ballou said he and his team have been working endlessly to get curriculum developed and proper accreditation from the university.

Although the department itself has been approved, Ballou said it will still take a year or two to get everything finalized and placed where it needs to be. As of now, the curriculum for the graduate program can be found on a piece of scratch paper displayed in Ballou’s office in which he and his team have made notes and developed what they think will be the most beneficial to the future students. CASNR does not know when the department will see its first round of graduate students in this department, but Ballou and his team are working to make this program the best it can be to set it apart from other veterinary programs. This department will help shape our industry leaders in new ways.

Not Just Medicine

 It is important to note that the veterinary science department will not be associated with the College of Veterinary Medicine that is currently in the works at Texas Tech through the university systems. Although the future vet school will be a link to the main campus and present resources to CASNR, the two are unrelated. Ballou said the two will essentially be focused on different aspects of the industry.  

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