(Source: “A Brief History of West Texas A&M University” by Dr. Peter Petersen, professor emeritus of history.)
West Texas A&M University has been known by many names since it was founded in 1910, and has faced many challenges; but one thing has remained the same—the unwavering support of its community. Despite a catastrophic fire, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, Vietnam, economic downturns and the changing needs of students, West Texas A&M has maintained a strong presence in the Texas Panhandle that promises to be even more significant in the years to come.
Twenty-five west Texas cities and towns competed to be the location of a new state normal school authorized by the Texas legislature in 1909. A small committee made up of the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, the lieutenant governor, and the superintendent of public instruction, chose Canyon as the new location. West Texas State Normal College was founded in a community of 1,400 just a few miles from the rim of Palo Duro Canyon.
In 1910 the school opened with 152 students and enrollment increased steadily each year. But in 1914, a fire accidentally started by a workman destroyed the single administration building that contained classrooms, the laboratory and library. The small city of Canyon provided meeting places for classes over the next two years in churches, a courthouse and other vacant buildings. When students returned to campus in 1916, they enjoyed a new, grand building now known as Old Main.
The institution earned a new name in 1922—West Texas State Teachers College—when the Texas State Department of Education approved the granting of a bachelor’s degree at the school. Additional facilities were built, including its first dormitory, Cousins Hall, named for the school’s first president, R.B. Cousins.
The financial crisis and drought of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s proved to be challenges to the west Texas college. The school’s budget was cut by the legislature, resulting in the temporary elimination of the graduate program, and enrollment declined. Despite these extraordinary challenges, once the war ended, enrollment soared and the school’s third president, James P. Cornette, ushered in a new era for the school, now named West Texas State College. The new name reflected a revised departmental structure and curriculum that shifted education students’ observations and student teaching to neighborhood schools. New construction on campus abounded in the 1950s, resulting in a new president’s residence, library, field house, fine arts building, football stadium, two dormitories and chapel.
In 1963, Governor John Connally signed a bill changing the school’s name to West Texas State University. The school was no longer a local teachers college. Master’s degree programs were added in seven areas. The Kilgore Research Center was established. Programs included a new College of Arts and Sciences, a Graduate School, School of Agriculture, School of Fine Arts and a Department of Nursing offering a 4-year degree. The University also added its own Board of Regents.
The university was plagued by economic difficulties and decreasing enrollment throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Factors beyond the school’s control, such as changes in the selective service system during the Vietnam conflict, inflation in the early ‘70s and the huge economic downturn Texas faced in the ‘80s challenged the financial health of the university.
A fresh start came in 1990 when West Texas State University joined the Texas A&M University System. Three years later its name changed officially to West Texas A&M University. Enrollment began to grow, university finances improved, and new programs were added. Since this turnaround, the university has experienced steady, continued growth in all areas: programs, new construction, and student enrollment. The university has also expanded its presence in Amarillo with classes in its Amarillo Center, added new graduate programs, and established itself as a national leader in distance education.
Under the leadership of President Pat O’Brien, university construction has exploded, with projects totaling more than $150 million. More plans include the new, standalone Amarillo Center and an Agricultural Sciences Complex. O’Brien has also extended financial aid to low-income students and overseen an increased four-year graduation rate. WTAMU has been ranked as a first Tier university by U.S. News and World Report since 2012. Its Share Your Pride capital campaign was completed in 2014, raising over $50 million.
The future of West Texas A&M University is promising. The school will undoubtedly continue to be a valuable asset to the people of west Texas. Financial needs for a strong educational institution are never ending as facilities, academic programs, campus life, and the availability of scholarships influence students’ decisions on whether to choose WTAMU for their education.