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West Texas A&M University receives $20 million gift for new institute to promote “Texas Panhandle values”

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

West Texas A&M University receives $20 million gift for new institute to promote “Texas Panhandle values”” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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West Texas A&M University has received a $20 million gift — the largest gift from an individual donor in the university’s history — to create a new institute to promote American values.

The donation is a gift from Amarillo businessman Alex Fairly and his wife, Cheryl. Both graduated from West Texas A&M.

The new university center will be called the Hill Institute, named after the university’s second president, Joseph Hill.

“The mission of The Hill Institute is to encourage reflection upon the importance of ten West Texas, Texas, and American values and, through study and scholarship, promulgate the values among students within the diverse disciplines of the University and the extended community,” a flier for the new institute reads.

The institute’s website lists those ten values: trust; family life; hard work and persistence; regard for others; personal responsibility and free will; compatriotism and patriotism; exercise of virtue; the free and open exercise of faith; personal and civic loyalty; and rugged individualism.

“Ultimately, the goal is to have the work of scholars impact every profession and area of study represented on [West Texas A&M’s] campus through the firmly held and highly esteemed values of The Institute,” the newly created website reads. “A challenge in contemporary higher education is the retreat of disciplines into silos with little common ground from which to produce engaged citizens. The Institute will illuminate the founding values of our nation as embodied in our region as a means of cementing intellectual processes to make the world a better place to live.”

The Texas A&M Board of Regents approved the creation of the institute in February 2022 and the university had been searching for a donor to fund the center since. West Texas A&M President Walter Wendler said he worked with Fairly on crafting the institute’s mission for three years. He said he sees the university and this new institute as a “launching pad for the future of higher education.”

“Higher education is in the need to continually be reshaped, especially now with forces at work that affect every aspect of university life and the students who come here to study [and] the faculty and staff who come here to work who take care of their families,” Wendler said Wednesday during an event to announce the new center. “The enterprise of higher education is being drawn into a universalist perspective, one which says all institutions should all look the same. There are many forces at work that drive us in that direction and it’s a mistake.”

Wendler, who has served as the university’s president since 2016, is known for being outspoken about his Christian beliefs, often publishing articles about his faith on his personal website and in messages to the university community.

In the spring, the university’s faculty issued a vote of no confidence in Wendler’s leadership after he canceled a student drag show on campus, which he called “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny.” They accused him of abusing his role as president by running the university based on his own religious ideology and said he has exhibited a pattern of “divisive, misogynistic, homophobic and non-inclusive rhetoric that stands in stark contrast with the core values of the university.”

Wendler emerged from the controversy unscathed. He’s also received early support from a federal judge who is overseeing a lawsuit that a campus LGBTQ student group filed against Wendler in March, alleging he violated their free speech rights by banning the drag performance. Recently, the judge declined the student’s request for injunctive relief, stating that Wendler acted within his authority when he canceled the campus drag show.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who attended the event announcing the donation Wednesday, said he supported the center as a way to bring Texas “panhandle values” to the rest of the country.

“This is the America that all America used to be, it should be again,” Patrick said of the sprawling, pastoral region whose rural counties and smaller outposts have long been a Republican stronghold. “These are American values here.”

The Hill Institute will seek to embed students and faculty members “to better understand how these values impact daily life, create a better community, prepare us for engaged citizenship and shape our nation,” Wendler said. “We want the mission of the Hill Institute to have an impact far beyond our region.”

“Hill scholars” will also share their ideas and insights through regular publications and speaking engagements, according to a press release announcing the institute.

University officials said the institute will be funded through private donations, not state resources.

Alex Fairly, the donor funding the Hill Institute, told the crowd Wednesday that when Wendler approached him to serve on the committee for the university’s comprehensive fundraising campaign, the One West campaign, he was skeptical that his values aligned with those of higher education broadly.

“We wrestled with the decision to give to higher education because we were no longer sure we trusted the direction we saw higher education taking,” Fairly said. “What Texas and America need today is a leadership of intelligence and virtue. Education must take more account of permanent values.”

Fairly said he and his wife were convinced to make their donation because of Wendler, who they believe is leading higher education in the right direction, and the principles of Joseph Hill, who often spoke publicly about the values of the region.

According to the Texas Ethics Commission, Fairly has sporadically donated to local and state Republican lawmakers over the past few years. In 2022, Fairly and his entity, dealOn LLC, donated $100,000 to Attorney General Ken Paxton and $250,000 to Patrick. He has also made smaller donations to House Speaker Dade Phelan.

This year, Fairly and his wife donated $145,000 to the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a political action committee led by former Rep. Jonathan Stickland. The PAC was a vocal supporter of Paxton after he was impeached by the Texas House this spring and throughout his impeachment trial in the Senate. In June, the PAC donated $3 million to Patrick, who presided over the trial.

At the event Wednesday, Patrick told Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp that he would work with him to get similar institutes at all A&M campuses by the end of Sharp’s tenure.

“Start from here, make this a national policy program because we need leaders in America,” he told the crowd. “We need to turn our face back to God. Stand on that foundation.”

This isn’t the first time Patrick has supported an institute at a public university that had the financial backing of conservative donors.

In 2021, Patrick worked with private donors and university leaders at the University of Texas at Austin to create the now-called Civitas Institute. Originally called the Liberty Institute, the proposed think tank would be “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets,” according to draft plans of the center.

Patrick later said the original concept for the center was “shot down” by UT-Austin professors because they wanted to have control of hiring. Faculty who were involved in the creation of the institute told the Tribune that university leaders diverted from the original plans after faculty pushed back against the idea.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University System, University of Texas at Austin and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/04/west-texas-am-hill-institute/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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