A general, misbegotten perception that all universities are, or should be, alike pervades society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such treatment diminishes the purpose of many universities. Rather, it is critically important to recognize different institutions have different missions. National research universities, elite private universities and land-grant universities may appear similar from the outside looking in, but are dramatically different enterprises with different missions and goals. The distinctions grow more profound when regional universities, such as West Texas A&M University, are thrown into the hopper. WT is a proudly serving regional university.
The recent Supreme Court decisions regarding race-based admissions will have negligible impact on WT if the University stays “on mission.” In a New York Times piece, Richard Arum and Mitchell L. Stevens concur: Race-based admissions only affect a small portion of all universities and have a negligible impact on the universities that serve the most students – regional and comprehensive universities.
WT’s mission is to be a regional research university that is reflective of and responsive to the population it serves. In Fall 2022, our student population closely mirrored the population of the Texas Panhandle: White – 53.75%, Hispanic – 29.81%, African American – 5.08%, Asian American – 2.78%, Native American – .49%, Pacific Islander – .14%, Two or More Races – 2.48%, Unknown – 3.17%. WT is doing its job in serving its higher education mission by serving our region.
In reaching out to high schools in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains, WT demonstrates a palpable interest in serving the people of our region. For some, that may seem myopic or narrow-minded; for others, enlightened. For me, it is what it means to be responsive to our mission. It is essential to visit students face-to-face and understand their attributes, abilities and aspirations.
I have been interacting with college students for 50 years. Last week I met a student from Wellington, Texas—a small town vast and contagious in heart, determination and a sense of purpose. Third in his class, missing salutatorian by a few hundredths of a point, he turned down athletic scholarships at several institutions. Math is his strong subject—he wants to be an engineer. He wants to be near friends and family (the other institutions are too far away from home). He wants to meaningfully contribute to Wellington and the Panhandle after graduation. Would consideration of race add anything to this young man’s success or that of WT? By the way, this young man is mixed race. Last year, both the valedictorian and salutatorian from Wellington came to WT. By the way, their ethnicity is Hispanic/Latino.
People from our region and afar need to feel challenged at WT. While many who visit West Texas may think that the sparse population, big sky, flat ground, the slight aroma of cow manure, and the wind which turns those tall turbines are undesirable. The native population sees, feels and smells all of that as a part of life.
We serve the people of this region. We engage the communities and establish partnerships that promote mutual benefit. In so doing, we use data-driven decision-making studying student outcomes and demographic trends. We help identify areas for improvement and work to ensure that WT remains responsive to the people we serve. In service to the region, we aim to increase economic, social and cultural aspirations for a productive future. In all this, we believe people from other places will find value in our purpose and means. Students from over 40 states and 50 counties study in Canyon, Texas.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 73% of Americans say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity when making admissions decisions. Interestingly, majorities across racial and ethnic groups concur that race should not be a factor in admissions. This same Pew study identifies eight criteria that should be considered: high school grades, standardized test scores and being the first in the family to attend college are important and legitimate decision-making factors.
Sound university policy leads to a performance culture. A culture that judges’ students’ academic prowess, success and potential as the primary consideration for all admissions—this is WT’s charge from Chancellor Sharp and the Board of Regents; it is who we are. Malcolm Gladwell said in “I Hate the Ivy League: Riffs and Rants on Elite Education:”
The big, well-funded, elite research institution is a particularly American phenomenon and represents one of the country’s greatest contributions to the world of knowledge. But…I wonder if America’s success at providing for the top of the pyramid, at creating places for future geniuses to be taught by current geniuses, sometimes blinds us to a more important question: How good a job do we do at educating the middle, or the group below the middle?
Agree or not, these are legitimate reflections and questions.
At WT, we will continue to respond to the people we serve. WT’s programs and quality provide an educational experience that will be unavailable to many students at national research universities. We will serve our region and everyone who populates it to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, in our world, this may not be seen as affirmative but rather narrow-minded—shame on anyone who holds that view. Nothing is more affirmative than knowing, serving and valuing people, one person at a time.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.