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Cover Story - Posted September 23, 2011 noon
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photos by Davy Knapp Photography
WTAMU President, J. Patrick O'Brien, stands in front of the old Ag Science Building, soon to house the Department of Engineering.

Buffing Up

WTAMU grows its brand and prepares for the future as it marks its 101st year

When President J. Patrick O’Brien arrived at West Texas A&M University in 2006, it didn’t take him long to adapt to West Texas culture. After he was appointed to the position, members of the Ag Development Association took the Loyola University transplant to West Texas Western Store in Canyon and had him fitted for Western boots and a Stetson. While he may not sport a cowboy hat on a regular basis, rest assured, you’ll see him in a pair of boots.

“For a business guy from New Orleans, that’s saying he understands what’s important,” says Dr. Don Topliff, dean of the College of Agriculture, Science, and Engineering. “Plus, I think he figured out boots are fairly comfortable.”

Since stepping foot on WTAMU’s 176-acre campus, President O’Brien has initiated crucial changes to the university. What began in 1910 as West Texas State Normal College with 152 students and a single classroom, then later a teacher’s college, has grown into a public state university boasting nearly 8,000 students, 61 undergraduate programs, 45 master’s degree programs and one doctoral program. For the second year in a row, the university earned top-tier status in the U.S. News and World Report’s, “America’s Best Colleges” and The Princeton Review named WTAMU to the “Best in the West” as a master’s level college.

President O’Brien’s predecessor, Russell C. Long, provided a head start for the campus makeover. O’Brien picked up where Long left off, including the completion of the pedestrian mall, a popular gathering spot for students. In 2002, the university began a four-phase, $6-million renovation to the Virgil Henson Activities Center that includes a 40-foot climbing wall and a $2 million pool equipped with a water slide and lazy river. That same year, the groundbreaking of the First United Bank Center marked the university’s first sign of new construction in more than two decades. Before the opening of the Sybil B. Harrington Fine Arts Complex in 2006, WTAMU had not seen a modern academic edifice erected in more than 25 years.

“It has been my desire from the start to ensure that West Texas A&M is a first-choice institution – first choice for students, for faculty and staff, and for employers,” President O’Brien says in an email. “When prospective students are thinking about pursuing a university education in a field in which we have a degree program, I want WT to be their first choice. When a prospective faculty or staff member is thinking of a university in which to be employed, I want WT to be their first choice. And, when an employer is looking for a graduate to hire, I want West Texas A&M to be their first choice.”

Under President O’Brien’s leadership, the once-quiet university has started making some noise. From 2006 onward, enrollment has steadily increased 3 to 4 percent every year and has reached its largest student population this semester, with less than 50 percent derived from the Panhandle, says Dr. Neal Weaver, vice president of Institutional Advancement. That milestone is a direct result of President O’Brien’s effort to rebrand the university and transform its image, he says. It was a mere four years ago the university adopted the familiar slogan, “Discover the Buff in You.”

Before President O’Brien came along, “Our brand was whatever anybody wanted to think about us,” Dr. Weaver admits. “It’s the first time we really took control of our brand and how we wanted to be thought of… and saying, ‘This is who we are,’ instead of letting everybody else define us.”

During this past year alone, WTAMU has welcomed a $32-million state-of-the-art residence hall in an attempt to shift from a commuter campus to a residential one, and a $21.8-million sports park. In 2008, the upperclassman living quarters, Buff Hall, opened, and another modern residence hall is anticipated. On August 8, faculty and students gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Jack B. Kelley Student Center, a $10.9-million expansion to the 43-year-old building. Mary Moody Northen Hall has undergone Phase I of its interior renovations and the old Ag Science building is currently undergoing a $10-million renovation to make room for the emergent engineering department, which will house the mechanical and civic engineering students and save space for two future engineering curriculum.

“[President O’Brien] came and whipped this place into shape,” commends assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Dr. Emily Hunt, as the JBK Center vibrates from construction. “It’s been amazing, what he’s done for the campus.”

While the aesthetics and image of WTAMU has altered tremendously, the university has not always thrived, says Dr. James Hallmark, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

“I’ve seen it transform from kind of a sleepy, quiet, injured university to a university that is really doing remarkable things that are recognized on a national and international level,” he says.

Leaving a professorship at Wichita State University in 1991, Dr. Hallmark became an assistant professor of communications at WTAMU. When he arrived, WTAMU was in the midst of conflict and debt and the campus was in dire need of renovation, he says. The residence halls were outdated, the JBK Student Center was too small to house the student population and the Physical Plant lacked progression. However, a fellow faculty member told Dr. Hallmark the university was working hard to resolve its issues, offering the professor faith in the institution.

“It turned out he was right,” Dr. Hallmark discloses. “When I came there was just a lot of really talented and good people here, both faculty, staff and students. And around that core, we began to build.”

The university needed a “period of healing” before it could begin to lay a concrete foundation, Dr. Hallmark says. The first step in rebuilding WTAMU began with a deserving candidate: the agriculture department. The university encountered tough economic times during the 1980s and the department of agriculture was incorporated with natural sciences and nursing, says Dr. Topliff.

In the 1990s, talk arose of dismissing the agriculture program. The president at the time, Russell C. Long, immediately argued that proposal, Dr. Hallmark says.

President Long responded, “I’m not stupid. I can look out the window when I drive some place and recognize that agriculture is important around here. If we’re going to be the university for this region, we need to have a strong ag program,” Dr. Hallmark recalls.

“Instead of killing it, we invested in it,” Dr. Hallmark says, “and brought in some outstanding faculty, some outstanding leaders. We literally have ag faculty that are the best in the world in what they do. For a school this size, that’s pretty good.”

Five years ago, agriculture departed its roommate of several years, nursing, and was renamed the College of Agriculture, Science and Engineering. With more than 1,600 students in its college, agriculture offers the sole Ph.D. program at the university.

Appointed to dean in December, Dr. Topliff left Oklahoma State University, where he was the head of the agricultural division, to work at the WT in 1998.

“Agriculture has been responsible for the majority of research on this campus ever since I’ve been here,” he says. “Helping solve problems is in my DNA so that was very appealing to me,” says Dr. Topliff, who grew up on a farm and feed yard operation in Goodland, Kansas.

The agriculture department’s primary focus is to solve what Dr. Topliff calls “now-problems,” issues pertaining to everyday life in the Panhandle, from improving air quality and the cattle feeding industry to more efficiently using resources from the Ogallala Aquifer. The college annually spends about $6 million for research, he says. The 474-acre Nance Ranch feed yard, which serves as one the agriculture department’s primary research facilities for faculty members and students, was passed on to WTAMU by owner Lucille Nance Jones in 1971. One ongoing project, for example, is researching the use of ethanol byproducts in the cattle feeding industry, Dr. Topliff says.

“That’s research that has improved the competitiveness of our cattle feeding industry worldwide,” he claims.

It’s no surprise agriculture is a driving force behind the Panhandle economy. Every semester the college graduates capable students that bring their skills and apply their knowledge to the agriculture industry, proving WTAMU prepares its students for every aspect of this $15-billion, regional industry.

“In this day and time, if you’re not smart, if you’re not business-savvy, if you’re not up on technology, you’re not going to survive in this industry. Our students are as likely to be riding a corporate chair as they are to be riding a saddle,” Dr. Topliff asserts with a hint of a grin.

After the university devoted itself to revitalizing the agriculture department, it began to tackle its next academic hurdle: to promote and progress the fine arts programs, Dr. Hallmark says. Established five years ago, the Sybil B. Harrington Fine Arts Complex opened its doors to a whole new era of technology and education. The old fine arts building, which served WT for more than 50 years, was demolished in 2010 to make room for a parking lot for the rapidly growing university.

“The mission of WTAMU is not only to provide superior education grounded in the liberal arts, but also to serve as a cultural center for the region,” President O’Brien says. “A strong College of Fine Arts and Humanities is vital to providing a liberal arts education to WT students… By emphasizing the liberal arts, we educate the next generation of graduates whose responsibility it will be to transmit our civilization, our culture and our values to yet the next generation.”

The complex features top-of-the-line technology to serve students in the Departments of Art, Theatre and Dance, Communication, and Music and provides students with the space and equipment to design, produce and stage their own productions.

“I think this has been a huge step,” says Dr. Jessica Mallard, interim dean of the Sybil B. Harrington Fine Arts and Humanities and professor of communication studies, as she walks across the dimly lit stage of the Branding Iron Theatre. “I think our students were always talented but we didn’t have the ability to recruit them and showcase them in such a visible way where Amarillo and people from further areas can see.”

The complex features smart classrooms, modern studios for the University’s student-run programs, including the weekly newspaper, The Prairie, the TV station, News One, and the radio station, 91.1 The One and three performance spaces: The Branding Iron Theatre, which seats more than 300 guests, the Happy State Bank Studio black box theatre, and the 125-seat Recital Hall.

“That kind of thinking is something most universities don’t do,” Dr. Hallmark declares. “They just build a box and say, ‘Here’s your recital hall.’ In our Fine Arts Complex, I think maybe that’s symbolic for why the university is where it is because that’s the way we do things here. We’re not just building a recital hall. We want to build the best recital hall.”

Dr. James Rennier, who served as dean of Fine Arts and Humanities for four years before being named special assistant for academic projects in August, implemented key changes in the college. Since 2006, the music department has increased 25 percent to include 150 students and the communication department has grown 20 percent. After the college donated its collection of pianos to the Community Connect program in Dalhart, Dr. Rennier obtained four Steinway pianos. The acquisition of the Vermillion Editions, Ltd., the university print shop at Sunset Center, is a giant leap forward, he says. Founded by Steven M. Anderson, the press offers a plethora of printing services from screen printing and letter press to lithography and intaglio.

Broadcasting students have the opportunity to work on state-of-the-art technology in the AT&T High Definition Production Studio, equipment major universities do not have access to, Dr. Rennier says.

“We’re changing that humility and modesty which I think is part of the area to becoming, ‘No, we’re the real deal,” Dr. Rennier lauds as he leans back in his office chair. “When I first got here people were like, ‘We’re just little ole’ WT.’ We were lacking institutional self esteem… The college is really a dynamic place right now. It was quiet when I got here. Now there’s some buzz.”

Dr. Rennier has taken the rich tradition of the arts in this area and enhanced that reputation by making fine arts a more attainable career for students and a more tangible activity for citizens of the community.

“I believe in order for us to truly grow, we have to go from best-kept secret to the best-told story,” he says. “You do that by visibility. You do that with quality.”

Once the plan to restore fine arts was set in motion, the university set out to create a strong engineering department, a difficult endeavor considering the prestige of Texas Tech University, which had an entire college devoted to this degree field, Dr. Hallmark says. WTAMU officials had to convince the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that the local economy needed to educate and train its own engineers.

“[Engineering] is a profession that allows students from this area to stay in the area, find jobs and help local businesses grow and expand their impact on the region,” Dr. Weaver says. “And that’s our role, to help grow the economy locally and to allow students from this area to stay in this area.”

The ABET-accredited mechanical engineering program, introduced in 2003, was the first discipline to be offered. In 2010, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating board granted a discipline in civil engineering, and has approved an environmental engineering program for 2012, following electrical engineering. Once incorporated, the engineering department will become its own college. With a 100 percent employment rate of engineer graduates and 75 percent accepting jobs in the Panhandle, this expansion is a necessary measure, Dr. Topliff says.

“I think this region has needed engineering for a long time,” Dr. Hunt acknowledges. “We’re just pumping engineers into the Panhandle, which is wonderful.”

Joining the ranks of the College of Agriculture, Science and Engineering in 2005, the Canyon native is helping steer mechanical engineering into the future. Honored with the Young Investigator Award from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) for her project on energetic nano-materials, Dr. Hunt is the backbone of the mechanical engineering’s research team and author of “Nanostructured Metallic Alloys: Synthesis, Properties, and Applications.”

“That’s not for small schools,” Dr. Hallmark says of the Texas Tech graduate. “That’s for everybody. That’s competing against MIT and Harvard and everybody else. She’s the best. And she’s here. That’s amazing to me.”

In addition to overseeing a two-year study on explosive materials, funded by B&W Pantex, Dr. Hunt is spearheading a project to produce a metal alloy resistant to bacterial growth, a scientific innovation in health and safety. She and one of her former students, Colin Bjostad, traveled to Europe during the summer to conduct preliminary tests. Funded by the National Science Foundation and DTRA, Dr. Hunt received news in August that the material was being patented.

“[The research] is great for the school as a whole and the engineering department,” exclaims Colin, who graduated this past May with a degree in mechanical engineering and is presently pursuing his MBA at WTAMU. “Anytime our research leads to something that could put the school’s name out there is great, especially for the engineering department because we’re developing new things that aren’t around anywhere else. It’s really exciting.”

Currently sharing quarters with the nursing laboratories, members of the engineering department are looking forward to moving into the vacant Ag Science building, which will include classrooms, offices and lab space. The move, expected to occur within the next few months, is evidence of the department’s physical and academic development, Colin says.

“It means it's growing,” he says. “We’re moving into that building that is probably at least double the size of what we have right now. The university as a whole is growing, but specifically our department is getting a lot bigger.”

Although academics is a fundamental factor in any institution of higher learning, there’s no denying athletics provides a university with essential exposure. A talented sports team is a catalyst for drawing potential students and faculty as well as a community fanbase. And an attractive sports park only adds to that appeal.

“If we can get people to look at our university because of the success we have in athletics, to take a look at our degree programs, to get to meet our faculty, if that happens because we win a football game or our softball team does well, then that’s great,” says Michael McBroom, director of intercollegiate athletics. “That’s the role we play and we take it seriously.”

As the athletic director, Michael oversees 15 sports teams, 500 student athletes and hosts close to 100 sporting events on campus every year, he says. With an increasing number of student athletes and interest in WTAMU athletics, Michael understood the addition of an all-inclusive sports complex was a critical move in building the university.

The new Buffalo Sports Park, funded by student-approved fees, has naturally become a hot spot of university activity. The park touts varsity fields for softball, baseball, soccer and track; practice fields for football and the marching band; intramural fields for softball, flag football and soccer; a running/walking trail; open park space; basketball and tennis courts as well as sand volleyball courts. The athletic fields, composed of three types of turf with recycled products inside the field, can accumulate 10 inches of water an hour and effectively drain.

“Anytime you have outstanding recreational facilities inside a community it adds to the quality of life. It’s a center of activity every evening on our campus and I think that helps people see what life will be like when you come to WT as a student,” Michael describes.

In June, the university broke ground on a $4-million Buffalo Athletic Center, funded by private donations. The center, which will house football locker rooms, an athletic training center, a weight room, offices, and athlete study halls, is the “final piece of the puzzle” in strengthening the athletic department and university as a whole, Michael says.

“Our objective here is to be a first-choice institution,” Michael explains. “We believe we can be the best athletic program in the country in NCAA Division II. In order to do that you have to have fantastic facilities and Buffalo Sports Park, Buffalo Athletic Center in conjunction with Kimbrough Stadium and the First United Bank Center… give us about as good a facility as you can find anywhere for a school like ours in the country.”

This year, Michael believes WTAMU’s sports teams will exceed expectations and have the potential to become the top Division II players in the country. Over the past five years, athletic programs experienced their most successful five-year run, Michael says, taking home 29 championships and increasing the student athlete GPA by nearly 30 percent. With Buffalo Sports Park, a fantastic coaching staff, and scholarships, the university is well-equipped to advocate its athletics, Michael says.

“If you have facilities and scholarships and great coaches, that’s 90 percent of the battle right there,” Michael emphasizes. “I think Amarillo and Canyon provide us a great foundation to be able to have one of the country’s top athletic programs and doing it the right way for us is winning and graduating.”

While WTAMU is getting closer and closer to its ultimate vision, there is still much progress to be made, President O’Brien says. Over the course of the next decade, he anticipates an increase in enrollment and expects the university to satisfy the educational needs of the region and state.

“I believe it will continue to be a catalyst for economic growth for our region, as well as a cultural center that celebrates the arts, music and theatre,” President O’Brien asserts. “I believe the reputation and stature of the university will achieve new and higher levels as the institution engages in continuous improvement and develops new programs to meet the ever-changing needs of the regional and global market places… [and] WT’s faculty and students will continue to conduct relevant applied research that will strengthen local industries and improve the quality of life for the citizens of the state.”

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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