CANYON — Walter Wendler was on a mission: visit every high school in the Texas Panhandle. He had recently become president of West Texas A&M University, and he wanted every high school student in the region's 26 counties to know the school was there to serve them.
"I made the visits myself. I didn’t send recruiters," Wendler said. "I’ve been to schools like in Booker, Texas, and Texline and just all over the state, and they’d never had anyone come from the university, so it was interesting, it was intriguing."
September marks the second anniversary of Wendler's becoming president of West Texas A&M, a regional university known for its agriculture, education and business programs. In addition to his marathon high school tour shortly after he took office in 2016, Wendler has advanced fundraising efforts for the university and has overseen expansions to the school's facilities and programs. His arrival in Texas was a return to a familiar state: Wendler was an undergraduate at Texas A&M in College Station and served as the A&M System’s vice chancellor for planning and system integration.
Wendler came to West Texas A&M after about 15 years at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he served as chancellor and was abruptly removed from the post because of a breakdown in communication with the university's leadership. He faced criticism for some of his comments at the time on health benefits for same-sex partners of university employees. But he said he wants to leave that in the past, and that the experience taught him how to be a better leader.
Chandler Huddleston, a senior at West Texas A&M and student body president, said when Wendler first became president he would often eat at Chick-fil-A to get to know the students and has since become popular on campus. Huddleston meets with Wendler monthly and said he is always receptive to students' concerns.
Huddleston said he worked with Wendler to increase funding by over $4 million for a scholarship program called the Student Government Endowment. Wendler supported the proposal to increase funding and directed Huddleston to the right contacts to “set me up for success,” Huddleston said.
A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said one of the primary priorities in finding a new president for West Texas A&M was revamping town-gown relations. Wendler not only has increased communication between the university and its host city but also has thoroughly invested himself in his new community, Sharp said.
Gary Hinders, mayor of Canyon, said Wendler is commonly seen walking around town and showing up at community events like barbecues and church functions. Wendler has also reached out extensively to the city, Hinders said.
“It’s just a whole different level and attitude of cooperation coming from that direction,” Hinders said. “And he’s from New York! You would not picture him to fit so well as he does.”
As a regional university, West Texas A&M's priorities sometimes differ from those of national research institutions. During his marathon tour of the Panhandle’s high schools, Wendler would sometimes tell students not to apply to West Texas A&M if it wasn’t financially prudent, adding that he would rather students go to community college and transfer to West Texas A&M with less debt than apply to increase the number of applicants.
Lynn Pulliam, principal of Canadian High School in the northeast Panhandle, was impressed with Wendler’s visit, saying he was candid but passionate in describing the university’s programs to prospective students.
“The message that sends to me is: He wants our kids” for the university, Pulliam said.
Wendler has also been busy expanding the school's programs and tailoring them to the area’s needs. Last week, West Texas A&M got approval for a new doctoral program in education, which will focus on training teachers in small school districts. Some of the school districts Wendler visited had graduating classes of six or seven students. More than 70 percent of public school teachers in the region have degrees from West Texas A&M, and Wendler said this new program — the first of its kind in the country — will better prepare many of them for the challenges of rural education.
Already, Wendler is working with faculty on a third doctoral program in water engineering, which would serve an agricultural hotspot where about 90 percent of water consumption goes to agriculture.
“That university there is a real jewel and has been really making some huge strides forward in the last few years,” Sharp said.
But not all of Wendler's bosses have had such glowing things to say.
In 2006, Glenn Poshard, who was then president of Southern Illinois University and Wendler's boss, removed Wendler from the chancellor position, citing a lack of communication between their offices. But Wendler feels the move was at least partially motivated by their personal beliefs — Wendler is a religious conservative, and Poshard, a former congressman, is a liberal Democrat.
When contacted by The Texas Tribune, Poshard declined to comment, but he is quoted in a 2006 Southern Illinoisan article saying: "We do not have an atmosphere of teamwork here — not in Anthony Hall, not between Anthony Hall and the president's office,” referring to the central administrative building at SIU's Carbondale campus. “And as president, I accept my share of responsibility in that."
Wendler held the chancellor title until 2007. He soon after went on to lead the university’s architecture school.
John Dobbins, an architecture professor who worked daily with Wendler, said he was “wonderful to work for and with.” Dobbins called Wendler’s removal a “grave mistake” for SIU and said the reasons for his dismissal were based on matters of personality and politics.
“I did not find him difficult to work with at all, not even slightly,” Dobbins said. “I just think that’s someone’s opinion.”
Wendler was also criticized for pushing back on the SIU Board’s decision to extend certain medical benefits to the same-sex partners of employees, several years before Illinois legalized gay marriage in 2014. A Southern Illinoisan article at the time quoted Wendler as saying the measure would encourage “sinful behavior,” but Wendler said that quote was taken out of context. Still, he said his foundational beliefs on marriage remain — though he didn't specify what those were — and when asked how he would feel about a similar policy at West Texas A&M, he said he didn’t know.
"My basic values system has not changed," he said. "And I don’t expect anybody else to necessarily agree with it, but I’m also not going to be dishonest or disingenuous about what it is."
Wendler said he values inclusivity and that the racial makeup of the Panhandle is reflected in the school's student body, which is about 60 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and 3 percent Asian. He also said women outnumber men at the school, even though some of the school's specializations, like agriculture, are male-dominated industries.
“We want to be representative and responsive to the various populations that we serve,” Wendler said. “And I think we’re doing a pretty good job with that.”
Sharp said that after interviewing several people involved with Wendler’s dismissal at SIU, the search committee found it to be a “non-issue.” The committee also felt Wendler’s personal religious beliefs did not negatively influence his leadership, Sharp said.
“We looked at everything in the vetting process and came to the conclusion that much of the criticism wasn’t warranted,” he said. "We worried more about getting a good president than what the optics of something are one way or another."
Wendler is eager to put the past behind him, but he said he “cherished” his time at SIU and acknowledges that the has learned the importance of listening in leadership. He is also proud of his accomplishments at SIU, where he oversaw a dramatic increase in the university’s research and the launch of capital campaign that raised $100 million.
Sharp said he's impressed with Wendler's performance in Canyon.
"Walter has absolutely fallen in love with the Panhandle," Sharp said. "And the Panhandle has fallen in love with him. And I think in the end what he's going to do is make West Texas A&M in both service and education the school of choice for kids in the top  counties in the state of Texas."
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