Course teaches students about the back story of UTPB

When University of Texas Permian Basin Professor of History Derek Catsam started the UTPB history class this summer, he knew the myths, legends and high water marks of the school, but the project became more interesting as he’s gone along — for himself and the students.

They have learned about Duckgate, a scandal involving the duck pond and a proposed golf course, and the rivalry between Odessa and Midland over the placement of the university and it becoming a four-year institution.

The seven-week class has about 21 students in it. Catsam said Lacy Molina has been instrumental in making the course a success. He added that he has gotten support from Dean of Student Success Michael Frawley, Associate Professor of Art Chris Stanley, who worked with him last year on the Smithsonian Hometown Teams exhibit, and the administration.

 “The purpose of the course is two-fold. It is to help students understand how to actually do history, getting them in the archives; the importance of primary documents, the importance of what archivists do,” said Catsam, who also is the Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities.

 “… One of the things we talk about in higher education now is high-impact practices. This is a real good example of that because students are beginning to realize there are other options out there. Some of them might be interested in becoming librarians, or archivists, or working in museums, or that kind of thing. … This experience has really been great for them,” Catsam added.

The displays are on the first and fourth floor of the Mesa Building.

“They found great photo negatives of (late Texas Gov.) Ann Richards doing the signing for UTPB as a four-year institution to show how political leadership matters. (Late Texas Gov. Bill) Clements said no repeatedly. He vetoed the legislation that would have made UTPB a four-year school. Students are getting a hands-on experience of this,” Catsam said.

“They’re getting a hands-on experience of the research; they’re getting a hands-on experience of not only being in the archive and going through hundreds of boxes … but they’re getting the hands- on experience of picking from tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of individual sheets of paper pictures … I think their database now is up to 1,500 to 2,000 documents that they’ve digitized. That’s out of tens of thousands,” Catsam said.

Some of the students were involved in creating displays and research for the Smithsonian Hometown Teams exhibit that had its grand opening in 2018.

While the process of going through primary source documents is painstaking, Catsam said there’s also the excitement factor in compiling the displays and the learning process.

He said it’s all building up to the university’s 50th birthday. Legislation to form the university was passed in 1969, but the 50th anniversary of the founding was 1973. Catsam said he plans to have future students build on this research.

What’s captured the student’s imagination the most, Catsam said, was Duckgate. The display for this is on the fourth floor of the Mesa Building. 

Castsam said Brigadier Gen. H.W. Hise was hired to be a jack of all trades at UTPB. He and UTPB’s first President B.H. Amstead got crossways and Hise alleged that Amstead used state money to build a duck pond and golf course on the UTPB campus.

An investigation ensued that Catsam said cleared Amstead, but he resigned. And Hise was fired.

At the same time, in 1973 Amstead ordered every copy of the school’s student-faculty paper The Windmill (1,300 copies) destroyed by the university’s paper shredder. Amstead was angry that a letter in the paper was critical of the UT system’s board of regents. The student editor Joel Asbery was fired and Hise was reassigned to director of development, a previous Odessa American article said.

Catsam said students have also connected Duckgate to the plastic ducks that have appeared around campus.

Brittany Rolston, a graduate student in history, talked about one of the displays on the first floor of the Mesa Building, which includes legislation to start UTPB, news releases talking about land being purchased, brochures and a founders’ book, which includes signatures of the founders.

“I’ve been really interested to see a lot of the history of UTPB,” Rolston said. “It’s so cool the amount of stuff that we still have. Some of the scandals were really interesting like the Duckgate display on the fourth floor. That was fascinating to me. It was amazing to see some of the big historical players that we know about, like Lady Bird Johnson came to one of the opening events of UTPB. We had Gov. Ann Richards here to officially make us a four-year university, so that was really cool because those are both role models of mine, so to see that they were here interacting with us when I think of them as being so distant that was great.”

Rolston said she lives in Midland and it surprised her that the location of UTPB was such a sore point between the two towns. She said there was a small article in the Midland Reporter-Telegram on the first day of class, but no mention otherwise.

Shannon Whyte, a communication major with a history minor, said she’s loved the class. Whyte, who is from Attleboro, Mass., moved here with her husband from the Houston area two years ago.

“I think of it as kind of a scavenger hunt. We were going through all these boxes of materials. One day, I spent six hours hunched over releases from the 70s …,” Whyte said.

“… I think it’s neat because I’ve learned a lot about the area and where I live; why there was so much controversy between midland and Odessa,” she said.

Catsam said it’s his hope that the exhibits will stay up into the fall so everyone can view them.

Senior Abbey Whigham said she’s also enjoyed the project.

“I really love oral history. I love hearing from people, their perspectives … on UTPB and the various presidents and leaders and founders and student bodies. … But I love going through the archives and looking at pieces of legislation and getting to analyze that and fit it within the larger picture of the university. It’s interesting,” Whigham said.