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In the Panhandle, a conservative vision for higher education takes root at West Texas A&M

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

In the Panhandle, a conservative vision for higher education takes root at West Texas A&M” 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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CANYON — Alex Fairly made millions of dollars after he graduated from West Texas A&M University in 1985, running his own risk management consulting firm. But he donated only sporadically to his alma mater over the years.

When he looked at higher education in Texas, he didn’t like what he saw. Campuses put too much focus on politics, he thought. They seemed dominated by discussions on social issues.

But on a sunny day in October, he stood next to his wife, Cheryl, in the university football stadium’s event space — named after his company, The Fairly Group — to announce they were donating a whopping $20 million to the school. It was the largest contribution by an individual in the university’s history.

One person had convinced him: Walter Wendler.

Wendler, president of West Texas A&M, also thinks universities have become too ideologically focused. He saw an opportunity to correct that imbalance at the public university campus he leads, tucked away in the far west corner of the state.

“I want West Texas A&M University to champion ideas rather than ideology,” Wendler said at an event in Austin last year. “This fits very nicely into the culture of the Texas Panhandle. It’s a tough place, it’s a very tough place. And it’s a place that champions, I think I’ll say, conservative values.”

Fairly’s massive donation — big enough to cover one year of in-state tuition, fees and housing for almost the entire West Texas A&M freshman class — will be used to create a new center on campus, to be called The Hill Institute.

[West Texas A&M turned to leading conservatives to build out institute for “Panhandle values”]

Over two years ago, Wendler pitched Fairly on a center where students and scholars could study “Panhandle values” and promote them among the campus community. The idea appealed to Fairly, who has described his own values in emails as “faith-based” and “conservative.”

He and Wendler, who is also known for his outspoken Christian beliefs, identified 10 values they felt represented the people who live on the flat plains of the Panhandle, including family life, hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility and the open exercise of faith. They named it after Joseph Hill, the university’s well-respected president from 1918 to 1948. Hill was a steadfast believer in the importance of Judeo-Christian values, according to the school’s early planning documents.

“Through the Hill Institute, WT will reinforce the best of what families, and houses of worship and places of business — farms, ranches, and the oil fields — have instilled in those that come: The way you live matters. The way we live matters,” Fairly told the crowd of lawmakers, donors and supporters in October.

Details on how the institute will function have been scant. Early plans state the university will endow faculty across campus to study these values, provide student scholarships and host speakers and lectures on campus, with many details to be determined. But the idea has been met with fanfare from conservative politicians and advocates. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the most powerful elected officials in Texas, traveled nearly 500 miles north of Austin to celebrate its unveiling.

“Do we want to recreate an America that looks more like socialism and Marxism or do we want to have an America that believes in the Republic, believes in democracy, believes in personal freedom and personal responsibility?” Patrick asked the crowd, declaring that he would help get a center like the Hill Institute on every Texas A&M System campus.

Over the past few years, conservative lawmakers and activists across the country have increasingly railed against higher education. In their view, universities have lost their way, taken over by a mob of far-left administrators, faculty and students pushing liberal agendas and silencing conservative perspectives. The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, and Texas Tech University have recently found themselves the targets of such criticisms.

Wendler has presented himself as the answer. During his seven years as university president, the 73-year-old has found a fertile breeding ground within the largely conservative Christian Texas Panhandle to sow a different vision for public higher education, one that has caught the attention of state leaders, conservative advocacy groups and donors across the region and state.

“He’s voicing something that a segment of the Panhandle is saying, ‘Amen, brother,’” said Gary Byrd, a psychology professor who has been at the school since the early 1970s.

Plenty of people on campus have problems with where they see Wendler leading the school. His decision to cancel a campus drag show sparked weeks of campus protests. Enrollment has declined 10% in three years.

This fall, faculty erupted in anger after Wendler declared he wanted the university to eliminate textbooks to reduce student costs. Faculty members say proposals like that sound good in theory, but are poorly reasoned and confusing. They argued it infringed upon their ability to select the best materials for their classes. When it comes to the Hill Institute, they feel Wendler is keeping them in the dark about the project’s specifics.

“There is a lack of transparency and the potential of impacting academic freedom,” said Ashley Pinkham, a psychology professor and former faculty senate president. “This textbook issue is also impacting academic freedom. Canceling a student [drag show] fundraiser, that’s also stepping on their freedom. That’s where I start to get worried.”

Yet nearly a year since the drag show uproar — and despite a vote of no confidence in his leadership from the faculty — Wendler is still in charge and moving full steam ahead with his vision for how higher education could be.

“I tell students don’t leave your values at home,” Wendler said at the Austin event last year. “Don’t let somebody talk you out of your value system. Bring it with you and help us save this university at the top of Texas because we are in a place where that can happen.”

Who is Walter Wendler?

Wendler’s supporters often seem surprised that a New York-born academic could fit in so well in the Texas Panhandle. It’s a distinction Wendler plays up, often referring to himself as a “damn Yankee.”

But to his fans, he’s one of them. They like that he emphasizes that he started his college career at a two-year school. And they love that he is a practicing Christian who is outspoken about his religious beliefs.

His faith reinforced alumna Nickki Cluck’s confidence in the university’s leadership.

“I’m a Christian,” said Cluck, who grew up in Canyon and whose daughter now attends the university. “So for me … my child was going to school there. I appreciated that.”

When Wendler arrived in Canyon in 2016, he aimed to reconnect the university with the region, setting a goal to visit every high school in the Panhandle.

“He’s the first person that I’ve seen that actually recognized that we really ought to build on the strengths that we have and don’t just ignore them and don’t try to run away from them,” said Dyke Rogers, a West Texas A&M graduate and donor. “This isn’t Berkeley. And it’s not Austin. And it’s not Dallas.”

Wendler refused to sit down for an interview with The Texas Tribune. Initially, the president’s media relations staff offered to make him available for an in-person conversation. Then they said he would only answer questions in writing. He declined a phone interview or to answer more than 30 written questions the Tribune sent.

Wendler, an alumnus of the A&M System’s flagship campus in College Station, previously served as vice chancellor for the system’s planning and system integration team and as chancellor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His time at Southern Illinois was mired in conflict, including accusations of plagiarism and pushback after he said providing employee health care to same-sex partners would encourage “sinful behavior.” Ultimately, he was terminated as chancellor and returned to teaching.

These controversies raised concerns among some West Texas A&M faculty when he arrived in Canyon. The Tribune spoke to more than a dozen faculty who would only speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. (The university told faculty to direct any interview requests from the Tribune to the media relations office.)

For many faculty, early signs of trouble came during his first year when Wendler started telling students on his tour of Panhandle high schools that they should attend community college for two years before coming to West Texas A&M to avoid taking out student loans. Some community members saw the message as honest and refreshing. Others found it detrimental to the university.

“If you’re telling students to go somewhere else, not only are you still steering them away from the university, you’re steering them away from really good faculty,” said Pinkham, the psychology professor.

Then, there was the time Wendler wrote in a weekly column that, “the safest sex occurs between a husband and wife in a drug-free, lifelong monogamous relationship.” Students and professors accused him of alienating LGBTQ students and those who share different perspectives on marriage and sexual health. Wendler apologized.

“I am sorry for what I said — it was insensitive and not representative of the University that I am charged with representing,” he wrote at the time.

West Texas A&M’s campus sits smack in the middle of Canyon, a town of nearly 16,000 people just 20 minutes south of Amarillo. Trees are scarce in an area where fast food restaurant signs and billboards provide some of the tallest vertical visuals. But drive 14 miles east and the flat brown dirt of the plains abruptly drops 800 feet into a stunning expanse known as Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States.

The school originally opened in 1910 as a teacher’s college. American painter Georgia O’Keeffe led the art department between 1916 and 1918, drawn to the beauty of the canyon. One of her paintings of Palo Duro hangs in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on campus.

View of the Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Canyon, TX, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.
The Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Canyon on Dec. 9. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Canyon lies in the southern part of the 26 counties that make up the Texas Panhandle, a deeply conservative Christian notch on the American Bible Belt. In 2020, Donald Trump received 79% of the vote in Randall County, 27 percentage points more than his statewide tally.

Most Panhandle residents cluster in the Amarillo metro area. The rest are sprinkled across tiny towns where students often leave high schools that have graduating classes with fewer than 100 students. Many are the first in their families to attend college. About 20% of Panhandle residents have completed some kind of post-secondary education, according to the nonprofit Texas 2036.

It’s on this conservative, small-town stage where Wendler’s message is resonating. So while many on campus might be turned off by the president’s beliefs, he’s well-received outside its limits and has become a prolific fundraiser for West Texas A&M. In 2021, the university set out to raise $125 million. It met the mark in less than two years, mostly from donors in the region. Last year, the university bumped the goal up to $175 million.

“He speaks their language,” a faculty member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said about Wendler’s fundraising prowess. “He’s one of them. He didn’t have to fake it or anything.”

Eventually, Wendler traded in the title of “damn Yankee.” Now, he refers to himself as a “born-again Texan.”

Divisions over a drag show

When he was a kid, Marcus Stovall’s parents talked about getting out of the Panhandle and moving “somewhere with grass.”

By the time he was 18, Stovall needed more than grass. He was dying for oxygen, too — a place where a transgender man could breathe and feel free.

He wanted to go to college in Boston, but it was just too expensive. When fall came, he found himself moving into a dorm on West Texas A&M’s campus.

The now-senior said the negative attitude toward LGBTQ people he witnessed in his tiny private Amarillo high school followed him to Canyon. The friendly, tight-knit community that Canyon residents describe doesn’t ring true for him. He characterized the broader community view toward people who identify as LGBTQ as affable, but just on the surface.

“‘We don’t hate you, we just want you to go literally anywhere else so we don’t have to look at you,’” he described it, remembering times when students would approach him on campus to ask if they could pray over him. When he’d decline, he said, they’d get offended.

“My soul is fine,” Stovall said.

The campus LGBTQ student group, Spectrum WT, and volunteer faculty organization, Buff Allies, were strong support systems for him.

From left, Bear Bright and Marcus Stovall walk down the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 in Canyon, Tx.
From left: Bear Bright and Marcus Stovall walk down the sidewalk across the street from the Randall County courthouse in Canyon on Dec. 9. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune
West Texas A&M University students protest on March 23 after university President Walter Wendler canceled an on-campus drag show. Credit: David Bowser for The Texas Tribune

But that support got drowned out last spring when Wendler made a sudden decision to cancel a drag show fundraiser that Spectrum WT had organized on campus, arguing he felt drag shows degraded women.

“No one should claim a right to contribute to women’s suffering via a slapstick sideshow that erodes the worth of women,” Wendler wrote in an email to the campus.

Students held daily protests calling on Wendler to reinstate the drag show and resign. Many students felt Wendler violated students’ free speech, arguing if he didn’t like the drag show, he shouldn’t attend. Canceling it outright was a step too far, they told the Tribune.

Shortly after, Stovall and another student, Bear Bright, filed a free-speech lawsuit against Wendler, which is making its way through the courts. Stovall said Spectrum WT plans to host an on-campus drag show again this year.

The incident raised Wendler’s local profile while underscoring a deepening divide between those rallying around his vision and others feeling increasingly alienated by it. Counterprotesters started to show up, raising the temperature on campus. The head of the Amarillo GOP started a petition in support of Wendler. Local religious leaders also spoke out in his defense.

“Dr. Wendler has proven to be a strong leader and a wonderful asset to the West Texas Community and deserves our support for making a courageous, difficult decision on behalf of a diverse university community,” Howard Batson, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Amarillo, wrote in an op-ed in March.

For faculty, the controversy was the final straw. They accused Wendler of abusing his role as president by running the university based on his own religious ideology. They 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,” according to a faculty senate resolution. In April, more than 50% of the 368 full-time faculty issued a vote of no confidence in his leadership.

“That was a blow to him,” said Byrd, about the vote of no confidence. But then, nothing happened. Wendler kept his job and many elected officials, donors and community leaders rallied around him.

“He got more support, more money, more notoriety,” Byrd said. “So now he’s more determined than ever … and that pushed him to the right.”

In an internal email obtained by the Tribune via an open record request, Wendler acknowledged his decision to cancel the drag show “created consternation” on and off campus.

“On-campus, some of the faculty and students have strong concerns about my leadership,” he wrote shortly after the no-confidence vote. “The reaction has been decidedly more robust in the opposite direction off campus. I have never sensed a greater swell of support from West Texans for the Panhandle’s University.”

What is the Hill Institute? 

Lisa Garza decided it was time to leave West Texas A&M after she watched university leaders and state politicians rail against higher education as they announced the new Hill Institute in October.

The former associate dean of the college of education and social sciences credits her own college experience at West Texas A&M with exposing her to new ideas beyond those she heard growing up as the daughter of farm workers in West Texas.

But when she watched A&M System Chancellor John Sharp get up in front of the crowd and refer to left-leaning faculty as “pinko commies,” it put her over the edge.

First: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Last: Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. Both spoke at the West Texas A&M campus in Canyon on Oct. 4. Credit: Michael Cuviello/ Amarillo Globe-News/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters

She left the university at the end of the fall semester.

Garza admits she’s liberal. But she said she doesn’t force her students to think like she does; she teaches them to think critically. Her concern with the Hill Institute is that by declaring 10 values as the definitive values of the Panhandle region, the school is telling students there is one way to think.

“My fear is that WT is becoming a university [where] Panhandle values is the only perspective you’re going to get,” Garza said.

Since October, many faculty have viewed the Hill Institute with growing skepticism. They say they can’t get clear answers from Wendler about how the center will work in practice and feel he is not being upfront about his true vision for how the Hill Institute will affect the university experience.

“Every time we ask, we are told, ‘Oh, well, we’re just figuring it out. We’re just starting a dialogue,’” Pinkham said. “But can you open the dialogue after taking a large amount of money or donating a large amount of money?”

The Hill Institute’s founders and supporters see the new center in a different light. Many insist these values — like personal responsibility or hard work — are inoffensive and question how anyone could raise an issue with them. Rather, they argue, the center is a clear way to meet the unique needs of people in this region, a signal that their university represents the values they hold dear.

Brad Johnson, an education professor, said that message resonates with conservative Panhandle families who worry that if they send their children to college, they’ll abandon the values and ideas they’ve tried to instill in them.

Wendler “is saying to people, ‘we’re not here to push a particular agenda, but we are here to represent the values that the Texas Panhandle holds as a priority, to affirm and strengthen through education,’” he said.

University leaders also see the Hill Institute as an opportunity to set themselves apart from other public universities in the eyes of conservative state leaders.

“The powers that be in Austin (elected officials) have tried and failed to do this at other Texas universities (UT and TAMU — mainly because they did not have a President for it or was smart enough to know how to make it happen),” Todd Rasberry, vice president of philanthropy and external relations, wrote Cheryl Fairly a few months before her donation with her husband was announced, according to an email obtained via open records request. “The Austin folks will love that WT (and quite frankly, the Fairlys) have succeeded in making it happen (using no state funds is key).”

From left: WT President Walter V. Wendler, Cheryl and Alex Fairly, and Dr. Todd W. Rasberry in 2019.
From left: West Texas A&M President Walter Wendler, donors Cheryl and Alex Fairly, and university vice president of philanthropy and external relations Todd Rasberry pose for a photo in 2019. Credit: West Texas A&M/Rik Andersen

Yet the lack of clarity about Wendler’s plans and direct communication from Wendler goes beyond politics, faculty say. During his tenure, Wendler has repeatedly walked back his ideas.

He recently admitted that his message telling high school students to attend community college first because it would save them money was inaccurate. He discovered students who attend nearby Amarillo College before transferring to a four-year university graduate with more student loan debt than students who directly enroll at West Texas A&M.

“I’ve quit recommending that,” Wendler told faculty, according to audio of a fall faculty meeting obtained by the Tribune.

By the end of the fall semester, he also walked back his plan to make the entire campus textbook free by fall 2024, scaling the proposal down to first eliminating textbook costs for juniors and seniors and organizing a committee of administrators to examine the proposal further.

“I tried to bite off too much,” he said at that same meeting.

When asked where he saw the university heading in three to five years, Wendler said he didn’t know. Faculty said they found that startling.

“He will certainly tell you what you should believe morally, in terms of virtue of the university,” Byrd said, “But in terms of direct action — what are we going to do to get there — he has no idea.”

Before the meeting ended, another professor asked what should give them confidence in the university. Wendler paused.

“The fact that we’re having this conversation should give people confidence,” he said.

But for many donors and community members, Wendler’s positions on faith, virtue and values are enough. And his ability to get the Hill Institute off the ground demonstrates a path for where he thinks higher education should go. The state’s Republican power brokers are surely watching to see how it works out.

When Fairly shared with friends that he was helping his alma mater create a bulwark in one tiny corner of Texas higher education for Panhandle values, he said his friends predicted it would be a disaster. He’d need a crisis communications team, they warned him. He’d need professional writers to craft his public statements.

But in Canyon, alongside Walter Wendler, it turned out, Fairly didn’t need any of that. Beyond faculty apprehension, the announcement went off without a hitch.

The seedlings were finally starting to sprout.

CANYON, Texas (March 23, 2023) -- Clock tower on campus at West Texas A&M University. (Photo by David Bowser)
The clock tower on the West Texas A&M University campus on March 23. Credit: David Bowser for The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Amarillo College, Texas 2036, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, 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/2024/01/29/west-texas-am-walter-wendler-panhandle-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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