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‘By the skin of our teeth’

How a legislator, a senator, an attorney, an oil man and a student body made the difference in the A&M merger

By Chip Chandler
Senior Communication Specialist

 

A chat on a plane ride to Austin. A lunch with an old friend. 

From these casual meetings came one of the most consequential decisions in the history of West Texas A&M University. 

Merger talks begin

State Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo), a 1973 WT alum, remembers sitting next to Dr. Hans Mark, then the chancellor of the University of Texas System, on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Austin. Mark was quite familiar with the Texas Panhandle — had, in fact, honeymooned with his wife in the area, Smithee said — and told Smithee that UT would be happy to bring WT into its system.

Eddie Scott, an Amarillo attorney who served on the WT Board of Regents from 1987 to 1990, recalls that Teel Bivins, a longtime friend who was then serving as a state senator, said he was thinking about legislation that would help independent universities merge with larger systems.

These discussions were nothing new, really. According to “Always WT,” Dr. Marty Kuhlman’s centennial accounting of the University’s history, merger talks first started popping up in the 1970s. Faculty members were polled in 1976, with A&M and UT both suggested as possibilities. In 1980, a student-led, but ill-fated movement suggested a merger with Amarillo College.

But by the end of the decade, the time had finally come, and the momentum to ally WT with a larger university system with a broad, statewide reach was impossible to deny. 

“We were in a position at that time where the small, independent college was really becoming a dinosaur in Texas,” Smithee said. “They didn’t have the resources to compete for appropriations in the Legislature because these other systems had full-time lobbyists. As a legislator, I was seeing how hard it was for independent schools to compete.” 

The University of Texas System was floated as a possibility, as was Texas Tech University, at least briefly, though it had not yet formally become a university system.

“But as this went on, it became apparent that WT and A&M just had a lot in common,” Smithee said. “And with their resources and programs and access, for the long-term future of WT, it would be so much better to be a part of a system like that.”

Scott led the committee that studied a merger’s implications. Among those in favor of it: Fellow regent T. Boone Pickens, the prominent oil man.

“We had multiple meetings with faculty, staff, donors, local people, anybody interested in it,” Scott said. “Some liked the idea. A few didn’t, and we talked through that.”

The merger passes. Now what?

In a special session during the fall of 1989, the Texas Legislature passed a bill, co-sponsored by Smithee and Bivins, to approve bringing WT into the A&M System. It almost didn’t happen, though. 

“The governor (Gov. Bill Clements) called Boone and said there was just no room to put the A&M merger on the (legislative) calendar,” Scott recalled. “Boone said, well, Governor, it would be a special favor to me if you could do that. … About two minutes later, he called back and said, ‘Boone, it’s on the calendar.’”

There was one more major hurdle, though: The bill sponsored by Smithee and Bivins required the approval of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board before the merger would get its final approval.

“We thought that would be something that would assure people, but the board resented that,” Smithee said. “They said we were trying to get them to rubberstamp our position. We began to realize we didn’t have the votes on that board to approve it.”

Unlikely saviors 

Enter WT students. 

“The administration at the time did not want students to go down (to the THECB meeting),” recalled Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, now president of Amarillo College but then WT’s student body president. “Through someone else’s foresight, the (Amarillo Chamber of Commerce) took a flight of Amarillo citizens down there, and they called me and asked if any students wanted to go.”

Students and community leaders packed the meeting room.

“We didn’t sit,” Lowery-Hart said. “We just stood against the wall all the way around the room. I remember clearly one of the commissioners talking about the political pressure, that they’d never experienced anything like it, but he said the students being there reminded him why it was important.”

The students presented the board with a pro-merger petition signed by 2,866 students.

“We didn’t have the votes,” Smithee said. “As we walked in that day, we did not have the votes. We were one vote short. … Of all the people who testified, it was the students that made the difference. They testified from the heart, telling how important it was to them.

“That turned at least a couple of votes, and we snuck out of there by the skin of our teeth.”

The final vote was 10 to 7 in favor of the merger. On Sept. 1, 1990, West Texas State officially joined The Texas A&M University System.