April 16, 2021
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By Matthew Choi
The Texas Tribune

CANYON — Veterinarian Gregg Veneklasen loves what he calls “this part of the world.” He loves the natural beauty of the Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in the country, only minutes from his home. He loves the peaceful vistas stretching across heartland plains. He loves the temperate weather, the friendly people and the animals he works with in his horse clinic near downtown. 
But few young people want to move to rural areas like Canyon to practice veterinary medicine, and Veneklasen can’t blame them.
“If you’re a young guy, what in the hell would you want to live in Sunray, Texas, for? Insane,” Veneklasen said, referring to another Texas Panhandle city. “And raise a family? More insanity.”
Rural areas around the state are facing shortages of veterinarians as fewer young graduates want to practice away from urban amenities. In places like the Texas Panhandle — an agricultural focal point for the country — not having enough vets can pose serious consequences to livestock and food production. Texas livestock include over 1 million hogs, nearly a million sheep and over 12 million cattle. In 2016, there were only about 180 vets working on livestock in rural Texas areas.
Texas Tech University hopes to remedy that problem by opening its own veterinary school in Amarillo in the middle of the Panhandle. It would be the second veterinary school in the state. But Texas A&M; University, which operates the only veterinary school in Texas, in College Station, and already sends veterinary students to study minutes away from where Tech hopes to build its new program, is less than enthused.
“It is completely redundant,” Eleanor Green, dean of the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine, said about Tech’s proposed vet school. “There’s nothing they’re talking about doing that we don’t already do.”
Tech announced its desire to build a vet school in 2015, expecting to open in 2019, but the idea of a Tech vet school goes back to the 1970s. The plans got off to a sputtering start: the university shelved its proposals to prioritize medical school expansion. Tech announced it was pausing the latest plan in late 2016, but was granted $4.1 million from the Legislature in 2017 to restart the initiative.
If all goes according to plan, the first class of Tech vet school students will begin in fall 2021.
A&M;, whose program is ranked among the best in the world, has protested the newest proposals, saying Tech’s plans would be an inefficient use of state funds. But Tech said its program would complement A&M; and fill a need that no one institution could.
One of the driving tenets of Tech’s new vet school is its non-traditional education model, said Guy Loneragan, a veterinarian and Tech professor who has developed much of the curriculum for the new school. Based on a teaching model developed at the University of Calgary, Tech’s program would send students out to do residency-like learning in participating clinics across rural areas.
Doing so, Loneragan said, would give students more exposure to rural practices as opposed to keeping students in a teaching hospital on campus far from the communities that are facing vet shortages. It would also spare the cost of constructing an expensive teaching hospital, he added.
A&M;’s vet school plans to expand its freshman class size from 132 to 162 by next fall, which would be the largest veterinary class size in the United States or Canada, according a 2017 report commissioned by Tech. The report said expanding class size more would risk the quality of education.
About three-fourths of qualified vet school applicants are not admitted to A&M;’s program because of class size constraints, the report said, pushing more applicants to seek education out of state. In the 1990s, close to 80 percent of Texas vet licenses were granted to A&M; graduates. That percentage has steadily declined as the number of vet licenses in the state has increased exponentially.
“Texas is blessed with one of the world’s best vet schools, and for many good reasons,” Loneragan said.
“But the growth in Texas has exceeded the capacity of any one institution and we’re developing a complementary program that together will more fully meet the needs of Texas than any one institution is doing at the moment.”
Green, the dean of A&M;’s vet school, rejected the idea that the need for rural vets couldn’t be filled by a single school. West Texas A&M houses internships, rotations and research opportunities for A&M; vet students in a rural setting. A&M; also places students in residencies in rural areas while offering them the benefits of a world-class teaching hospital as well.

Disclosure: Texas A&M; University and Texas Tech University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Rhea Gonzales

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