By Clay Jackson
Texas Tech University is poised to begin hiring consultants for its veterinary school project, said Robert Duncan, chancellor of the university.
The 85th Texas Legislature, which convened this past January, agreed that the idea for a second veterinary college in Texas—Texas A&M is presently the only one—warranted a closer look.
As a result, the Legislature earmarked $4.1 million in the current state budget for further study of the project’s feasibility.
“They [consultants] will offer guidance on the process, including such things as planning, budgets, and accreditation,” said Brad Ashworth, vice chancellor, communications and marketing at Texas Tech.
The consultants will be paid out of the money coming from the state.
The initial funding from the state fell far short of the nearly $17 million Texas Tech had sought to begin building its school of veterinary medicine (SVM) on its Amarillo campus.
“I want to be clear, this is a planning grant. It is not a vet school opening in Amarillo,” Duncan emphasized at a news gathering.
Texas Tech analysts estimate construction of the veterinary school will cost $80 to $90 million.
One of the things that will be looked at with the “planning funds” is to determine whether the construction estimates are on point or need to be adjusted, Ashworth said.
A chronic shortage of large animal veterinarians is an oft-repeated mantra as to why Texas needs a second pipeline for veterinarians, especially large animal practitioners.
Several sources confirmed that large animal medicine will be the focus of the Texas Tech program.
“I think that there’s a recognized need, and the legislature has given us the resources to be able to see what we can do to solve that problem,” Duncan said.
One of the early backers of the project is the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation (AEDC), which agreed to free up $15 million, or $1.5 million a year for 10 years, provided the university breaks ground on the SVM or before Sept. 1, 2018.
However, Doug Nelson, vice president of financial services for ADEC, said he thinks the agreement timeline will have to be amended and voted on by the Amarillo City Council and the mayor.
“Based on [Texas Tech] not achieving the level of funding they would have preferred, at least from the state initially, I would not be surprised if we didn’t push those timeframes back,” Nelson said. “Our community is certainly going to be flexible because we believe this would be a great thing for our community.”
Once the school is up and running, the challenge then shifts to operations and funding things like scholarships, endowments, and research, Duncan said.
Some fear that students will bear the financial brunt through tuition hikes, but Duncan said the school “stand on its own.”
To that end, Texas Tech is forgoing the expense of building and running a veterinary teaching hospital by not having one.
Instead, the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine will immerse students in supervised “real-world experiences” in and around the cattle-operation-rich region.
Keeping vets local
Despite the SVM’s emphasis on large-animal medicine and the fact that Amarillo is a Texas-cattle hub (Texas leads the nation with 16 million head annually), will Texas Tech-minted veterinarians stay in the Panhandle after graduation?
“Our hope and expectation is people who go to school here are more inclined to stay,” Ashworth said. “As of now, there is no opportunity in this region.”
Nelson looks to AEDC’s 1997 $6 million investment in a new pharmacy school at Texas Tech as a cause for optimism about local prospects when it comes to the veterinary school.
“We’ve gotten a terrific return on our investment for [the pharmacy school] to be in our community, and we view this in very much the same way,” Nelson said.
Besides the veterinarian pipeline for local ag interests, Nelson spoke of other benefits. The school will create new jobs, students will pump money into the local economy, and the potential for research and development to attract animal health companies he said..
“It all bodes very well economically for our community,” Nelson said. “Part of the state statute that allowed … economic development corporations to be formed allows us not only to incentivize a business to come, but we can make investments in education that support primary industries in our community.”
The $15 million agreement between the AEDC and Texas Tech does both, Nelson added.
“They are going to create a facility that will have 100 employees when it is fully operational, and it is also an investment in education that will serve the agricultural industry, which is one of our primary industries in this part of the world,” he said.
The $15 million that the AEDC has committed to the project comes from funding it receives through a half cent in the sales tax rate.
“We’re obviously excited to further our partnership with the Texas Tech University system,” Nelson said. “We have a history of doing projects with them, and they’ve all been really successful. We’re looking forward to this particular project moving forward and benefitting both our community and ag business in this area.”
While the $4 million from the state and the $15 million from Amarillo are a nice start, looking for other sources of funding will be one of the project’s biggest challenges, Duncan said.
Those behind the project will look to business and philanthropic interests in Amarillo as well as dairy and beef interests for capital.
“You go statewide, you talk to people who understand the shortages and the need to get more young vets in the pipeline that want to work in these areas,” Duncan said.
There are 30 accredited veterinary colleges in the U.S. Alabama, California, and Tennessee have two each. Perhaps Texas will join their ranks.
Clay Jackson is a Southern California-based journalist covering the veterinary profession and the pet industry.