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Transitioning To DI With Tarleton State President Dr. James Hurley

Guest James Hurley, Tarleton State
25:23 min watch


Ahead of the official announcement to transition to Division I, Tarleton State President James Hurley sits down with AthleticDirectorU to discuss the reasons behind the transition, who he has leaned on to transition to Division I, how Tarleton State engaged its constituents in the decision, and the potential impacts on TSU academically, athletically, and financially.


Click the timestamp below to jump to a specific question/topic. Scroll down to read the full transcript.

  • - Opening remarks on moving to Division I
  • - What was your thought process when interviewing at Tarleton State?
  • - How will you evaluate the move to Division I from an academia perspective?
  • - How have you gone about raising the profile of each of your past institutions?
  • - How have you leaned on AD Lonn Reisman in this transition?
  • - Who have you leaned on in this decision to transition to Division I?
  • - Do you see any potential pitfalls early in this process?
  • - How did you go about educating and engaging your constituents?
  • - How did you educate alumni and donors about the importance of their support?
  • - How have you communicated the transition with the faculty?
  • - How will you handle the increased financial burden brought about by the transition to Division I?
  • - What is your leadership philosophy when coming into a new organization?


Full Transcript


Tai Brown: Greetings. This is Tai Brown with Athletic Director U. I’m here on campus at Tarleton State University. And I’m joined by Dr. James Hurley. Dr. Hurley is the president here at Tarleton state. Thanks for joining us.


James Hurley: Thank you for taking time to come up today. It’s a pretty, pretty special day today.


I appreciate it. You have a lovely campus and office here at Tarleton State.


Thank you. Thank you.


Now you guys are… you big announcement you made a little while ago, but there’s a, there’s a big signing, big things happening today in terms of Tarleton State University moving up to Division I.


Right, right, right. You’re correct. So we did make the informal announcement if you will.




It’s hard with the media today to keep those things under wraps.




But our students were excited. Our fanbase was excited. So we wanted to, to let them know, kind of ahead of time on what’s coming. Today is the official ceremonial signing where we will officially accept the invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference or as we know, better known as the WAC. So yeah, we’re really excited about it.


Well, it’s interesting. You got here in August.


I did.


August in 2019. We’re here now in November. I imagine when you, when you looked at the university in terms of, obviously, they were interviewing you, but you were interviewing them…




…to decide whether or not this is somewhere where you would fit. This is probably something that was on the horizon. Tell me about your thought process as you looked at taking a position here.


Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s one of the reasons why we chose, my wife and I and our family chose to explore Tarleton and ultimately leave Tusculum University, a great place full of great people. But I made it very clear, you know, kind of through the process and Kendall and I always said we wouldn’t leave for a lateral position. And we knew that Tarleton had been reviewing this for many years, actually, since 2003. And I’m sure we’ll talk about that more later.




But it was something that we felt like, meaning, the potential Division I move, it was something that was certainly a draw to the institute. It wasn’t the premise of why we made the decision. The people here are incredible. It’s an incredible place to raise a family. And the unique traditions behind this institution is just a really special place.


Right, right. Now you come in. You take the job. You start putting the plans in place to make the move. We have arrived at the point where you make the move. You’ve been in academia 23 years.




In the administration positions, 16 some odd years there.




I wonder about measuring success. Obviously, college athletics, wins and losses, graduating student athletes, you got APR. You got GSR.




A whole bunch of different numbers and acronyms.




But in terms of academia…




…how would you evaluate this move as the future comes?




Talk to us about that.


Yeah, great, and all those things that you mentioned are important, ensuring that our student athletes are progressing in a manner that’s, that’s sufficient toward graduating in four years.




Matriculating to post baccalaureate programs etc., all those things are really important to us. But the ultimate premise behind us making this move was, was simply to increase and enhance our institutional profile.




We want to raise our institutional profile to a level that when our graduates walk across that stage, their degree stands among their peers. And so, many of the institutions that our students here in Texas, in particular, used to in the Metroplex, when they enter the job for…. you know, on the job market, they’re entering a market of institutions that we want to look like. So our cross apps, the students that we… the institutions that we compete for four students, those are all Division I institutions, right. And so, we’re in a degree… in a world today, Ty, as you know, that degree worth is, it really means something, right. And so, we have to ensure that our degree is perceived to be worth that of what other competitive institutions look like.


Right. Raising the profile is very important in any number of industries, specifically in the higher education…




…academia and really in athletics is something that you have experienced. And you mentioned from Pikeville changing name, university with Pikeville to Tusculum University.


Right, right.


All these things. Tell me a little bit about why that’s important, has been important to you throughout your career because you’ve left a trail of leaving places better than you found them in terms of that.


Right. Well, I appreciate you saying that. And I think I have. I think that any leader walks into a situation and I was blessed at this institution and the other institutions were I follow a successional group of leaders that, that left it better than I found it.




Here. I’m fortunate to serve as the 16th president. And each of the 15 presidents that serve this institution, they were at the right place at the right time in the history of Tarleton. I can say the same Tusculum and the same at Pikeville. So, it’s imperative that you think about where your institution has been, where you are now. But more importantly, as you start to think about a new strategic plan, where do you want to be 10 years, 5 years, 10 years, 15, 20 years. And so, many of our students now, prospective students, they’re looking at institutional, strategic plans. They’re looking at, you know, what’s rank. You know, what’s the institution rank?




Is the school safe? All those things. And so, we play all of that into our strategic thought and strategic plan moving forward. And so, the Division I move for us was… we felt like it was just that natural next step.


Right. Comes in and it makes sense for you, you know, you come in and Coach Reisman, Athletics Director, has been here for 31 years.




A former basketball coast. Has been AD here, I think, a couple years.




And turned to full-time AD. He has a lot of institutional knowledge. In the few months you’ve been here, do you lean on him for…




Because there was a transition from the NAIA to Division II and now we’re talking about Division I.




Talk to me about that community, that relationship when you talk about leaders.


Yeah. Coach Reisman, Mr. Reisman now, and I caution folks to stop calling him Coach Reisman because his son Chris is our coach now.




Right. And he’s our basketball coach and we have to remind people that Lonn Reisman, Mr. Reisman is our vice president for intercollegiate athletics. He is…


That’ll be hard for people to stop calling him coach.


Well… and it’s going to be hard for him to stop.


Responding to it, right?


Yeah. Well, he’s one of the all-time winningest coach. He’s a great guy, incredible enthusiasm for this institution, but more importantly, you couched it perfectly. He has institutional knowledge that really no one on my leadership cabinet or really around the institution has. He’s been here for 30-plus years.




And deeply loves this institution. So he has seen the evolution of the NAI to D-II to Division I. And he and Dr. McCabe started this process back in 2005, when they submitted a letter to the Southland Conference at that point to consider Tarleton for Division I conversion. And so he has remained steadfast in pursuit of this dream. He is a… he is a wealth of institutional knowledge because he can pick up the phone and call his colleagues across the country, all of whom, which just, you know, reveling in what he’s done for athletics, in particular, the game of basketball. So he’s been a tremendous asset for us. And, and we are really going to depend on him to be our guideposts, leading us through the transition, because it’s, it’s a four- to five-year process, as you know, all too well, getting out of the transitional period into eligible, you know…




I guess, becoming eligible for postseason play, etc.


I wonder, you mentioned something here with Coach Reisman talking about calling his colleagues in terms of transition, in terms of leadership, in terms of managing the process as athletics director. As a president, I wonder if there are people that you leaned on in this process.




Other, other presidents, other people in the higher administrations, even people in college athletics that you know.


Yeah, no… absolutely. We had a lot of folks that we call them and had conversation with, Dave Hart, for example, was the athletic director at the University of Tennessee. I think he’s doing some consulting across the country. He and I had a very long conversation just about what it looks like long term, short term. President Williams at Dixie State, they’re going through the same process. They had a year head Start, if you will, in the process.




He’s been a tremendous asset for me. And then we’ve analyzed institutions like Lipscomb and Belmont, Dixie, TCU, Abilene, all these institutions that had made this conversion in the last 5 to 10 years, Belmont.




You know, how are they doing certain things? How are they approaching the process? And it is a process. And so, I have reached out to colleagues, just to have the conversation about what are the unintended consequences.




What are some of the pitfalls that we’re not, you know, quite projecting, and everyone has just been so kind.


Yeah, I’d imagine there are a number of a variety of different case studies in terms of moving to Division I that you can look at as you guys…




…walk through this process. You mentioned pitfalls. I wonder, have you seen any yet or what do you see in the immediate future, the near future?


Now, you know, in terms of pitfalls, we… so we use collegiate consulting, Russell Wright was the consultant and he had started this process for Tarleton, gosh, probably 10-plus years ago. And so, we’ve had an updated feasibility study and I felt very comfortable coming in and making this decision within the first 30 days, because the institution advantage it so thoroughly.




And Dr. Dottavio, my predecessor, established a panel led by our former CFO, Dr. Richardson, that really went through all the necessary steps. They had faculty engagement, staff engagement, student engagement. Of course, Russell came in and continued to pour over the data and update the data, you know, looking at all conferences, not just the WAC, but water three or four other conferences that could be viable for this institution. And at the end of the day, we trusted our consultant. We trusted our faculty and staff, the leaders that had really been kind of engulfed in this process the last three to five years. And we felt like the timing was right. The WAC was poised to invite us and we just felt like the iron was a little too hot not to strike.


Right, you come on, and you make, you said 30 days you make that decision. Talk to me about the process on campus internally, externally, with constituents, students…




…alumni, former student athletes, administration, community about how you educated them, how you received their input in terms of making that decision. Talk to me a little about that process.



So, once I got, got, you know, at the helm of the presidency, a lot of that had already occurred. Again, back to that three, you know, the last two, three, four years, but, but for me it was gathering that information. It was gathering that data, reading through the reports, reading through the faculty reports, the [Senate 0:11:09] reports, watching the videos that had occurred with, with the, you know, the conversations around. So we held several student forums where faculty and staff could show up, but it was predominantly centered around students because we needed to pass a student referendum to enhance our athletic fee. You and I would not be having this conversation today had the students not stepped up and approved an athletic fee enhancement. I think it was from like $23 or $22 to $35 per credit hour, but we kept it at 13 hours, whereas some institutions don’t put a cap on it. We wanted to… we wanted to, to remain capped at 13. So our students felt like that it was fair and equitable for all of our students. And we had the largest turnout in the history of the institution for that vote.


All right.


And, and that… and it passed by nearly 70%. Whereas it… I’m sure you’ve seen across the country a lot of student referendums are failing…




…when it, when it comes to enhanced fees, not just athletics, but parking, student athletic fees, student reg fees, those are those are not going so well for administration. But our students have been really, really excited about this. So having those informational sessions was really, really important. And just transparent, right, holding transparent sessions, and being transparent about how we would utilize the funds. Lonn Reisman, our CFO, Lori Beaty, they did an excellent job of showing what your investment is going to go toward, right, and then how will this enhance the reputation of the institution as a whole.


I imagine that similar conversation took place when you talk about donors and alumni.




How will your investment help us, that kind of thing. Talk about that.


We engaged. Yeah, great question. We engage with the Texan Club early and the Texan Club is our base of athletic supporters. And of course, I knew very early they had been supportive of this initiative for the last two to three years. They’ve had several votes of confidence and moving in this direction. But I think probably within my first week to 10 days, I met with the Texan Club to garner if they’re still interested, if they’re willing to support, and if they’re willing to step up and support at, at another level. And when I came in, the term that I used was this institution is next level ready. But that means everyone else has to be next level ready as well. Students have to be next level ready, fan base, faculty staff, etc. So we’ve really coined this around next level ready. And, and they have. Our donor base has stepped up. I mean, we’ve had two football games just in the last few weeks that had been nearly capacity, almost sold out. So, you know, that’s, that’s a great start. And we just have a lot of athletic momentum. We, of course, our academic pedigree here has been excellent. We’re a school of opportunity.




And we’ve been a university of opportunity for 120 years. And that’s not going to change. And in fact, we want to enhance that pedigree. We want to enhance the opportunity that we can offer to students, not only in Texas, but across the country.


Right. And then faculty, right?




Some, some college campuses, faculty and athletics are clearly on different sides of schism, right?




The best colleges, they are on the same page…




…and work together. Tell me about the communication and your thoughts.


Yeah, absolutely. And I can say that our faculty have been very supportive, very supportive, supportive of this initiative. It’s funny when you make these decisions, you always receive some hate mail. And it’s always anonymous, right?




I can say without hesitation, I’ve not received one piece of hate mail. I’ve not received a nasty letter saying please go back to Tennessee. This is the worst idea. You’re going to destroy our institution. What I’ve received are a few fair questions, right. And I’m all for question everything as long as you do it in a civil manner. Our faculty have been phenomenal. They see this as an opportunity to enhance our research scope. It… they also see this as an opportunity to get us into new media markets that expand our kind of our broad message. And we need to tell the Tarleton story more broadly. Texas is, is growing no doubt. This state is growing. But every other state is coming into Texas now to recruit our students. So not only do we have to really fight everybody to protect and keep our own students, but we have to start thinking about recruiting students from other states to backfill. And so, by going into California and Utah and Arizona and Seattle and those places that Chicago that we get to play in the WAC, that just really exposes the great things beyond athletics. And from day one, I’ve said, this is not about athletics. This is about raising our institutional profile, in particular, our academic pedigree.


Right. In a transition to Division I, Division I comes with it, you know, more scholarships, you want to try to create some funds to where the scholarships and not taxing campus and those kind of things.


Right, yeah.


I’m sure you have a 3-, 4-, 5-, 10-year plan on that.




Tell me about strategically planning that, including Coach Reisman with it. And just that whole aspect of, of the move…


Absolutely. Yeah.


…in terms of resources.


Yeah. And that was the one question that I had first and foremost, “Can we afford it?” Because I had already, you know, read the 60-plus page collegiate consulting report that said, “You’re ready.” But are we really ready?


Yeah, right.


You know, can we can we afford the next level? And so, I spent along with Lori Beaty, we spent an enormous amount of time poring over the books just to ensure that the baseline that index that we were using for scholarships for travel allotments, budgets, etc.that they are fair and true. Then, you know, what does it look like in the WAC? What does it look like in the other conferences? And can we truly afford to keep up?




And we can. Part of that revenue enhancement is, is going to be built into a comprehensive capital campaign that we will launch in February.




And our goal is to raise an x amount of millions of dollars to supplement our athletic endeavors. In particular, we want to offer more graduate assistantships for our students.




I use a model… you talked about colleagues and other institutions, Duke University, for example, and there are a lot of other examples, but they have the Iron Duke program. Where if a student, you know, plays all four years, graduates from that, from Duke with an undergraduate degree, they have some, some funding assistance that allows those student athletes to stay and garner a master’s degree at probably a fraction of the cost.




Those are the types of things we want to do to show that we value what our student athletes are doing for our institution and for the region, right. I mean, this is an economic impact on this region. And when you move from Division II to Division I, we’ve talked about the need for regionalism here since I’ve been… since I’ve arrived and getting all the other surrounding towns. It can’t just be about Stephenville. It’s got to be about all the surrounding little towns and cities that will help supplement. So, you know, we’re fortunate. We have roughly 85,000, [inaudible 0:18:26] alumni. I think we have 71,000 alums that are connected in some shape, form or fashion to this institution. That’s an incredible base for kind of a mid-major regional comprehensive institution.

So we’re really excited. We’ve seen an enormous increase in, in not only prospective student interest since we’ve made this announcement, but more importantly on the alumni side. You know, we’ve seen an uptick in registration of alumni, etc. So we’re… those things will, over that 5 to 10 years, will add up. But embedding this move into our 10-year strategic plan will be the most critical.


Right. Will make a whole lot of sense.




Last couple questions here. You got here in August.




We’re in November.




You’re, you’re still onboarding. I mean…




…you’re still… probably going to know people around the campus.




You’re still meeting with people. You’re still figuring out, but you have this big decision. I’m sure there are a bunch of other decisions you probably made or will make here in the near future. Talk to me about… about that part or about your leadership philosophy when you arrive at a new organization.




And you have to be in the lead. I mean, there’s a lot of listening.


Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s what I’ve been doing, a lot of listening and learning. I want to give credit to our chancellor, too, Chancellor John Sharp, he has been kind of my sounding post, if you will. He and, and James Hallmark is vice president for academic affairs for the system. They’re two guys that I lean on quite often, in particular, the chancellor. Not only is he my boss, he’s become a great friend. And just asking Texas advice, right? Because the Texas culture is different than any other state, as, as every state is different, right? But it’s very similar to where I came from, from Kentucky and Tennessee. It looks a lot like home. And so, they’ve been incredible, incredible, incredibly supportive. We would not be making this move if Chancellor Sharp wasn’t supportive and the A&M regents hadn’t supported this through, you know, their vote and vote of confidence. So we’re, we’re just really blessed to be in a system that, that is robust, and one of the fastest growing systems in the country. So that helps.

And when you have that network of institutions, we have 11 institutions across the system. It’s really easy for me to pick up the phone and call Kelly at Corpus Christi, who’s CNE Division I president and say, “Hey, talk me through, you know, some of the, some of the perils and… that you get to deal with each day or some of the pitfalls that I may want to consider.” I think being a president, this is my third presidency. And I was a really young president at Pikeville. Having those experiences at those institutions had certainly made the transition easier, because you kind of know what to expect. You know what questions will come from faculty. You know what questions to anticipate from staff. It’s always, “How will the students accept you?”




Right. And our student body have… they been incredible. They’ve, they’ve welcomed Kindall and our family with open arms. They, you know, our daughter Blakely, you know, she’s one of the favorites on campus. She’s their little two-year-old. So it’s, it’s been, it’s been really, really good. The transition… this has been the smoothest transition that I’ve had.


Oh, yeah.


And I think it’s because of the people.


Right. I always, always find it interesting to come in and lead and you correct me if I’m wrong, but the institutions that have been president has gotten bigger…




…every step of the way, right?


We’ve grown, for sure.


Right. And you come in and lead and you have to really understand the people you’re working from administrative assistants…




…to athletic directors to compliance, to law, to legal, to faculty. It’s just interesting to me that there’s a, there’s a whole… there’s a slew of people you have to really understand how they operate.




And they’re all wondering…


How are you going to operate.


How are you going to operate, right?


I get. Yep.


That part always interest me.


Well, in my leadership style, I did not answer your questions, Ty, and I should fairly. My leadership style is different. I would define it as unique. And I know that about myself. I have several blind spots and I have to make sure that I’m… that I surround myself with people that identify those blind spots and they backfill without me even though in their backfilling, right. I’m a very future focused, I don’t look in… you know, my granddad always said, “There’s a reason that the front windshield is so much larger than the rearview mirror, right?”




And so, I don’t spend a lot of time in the rearview mirror. I think we’ve got to look ahead and move ahead and we got to do what’s best for our students. And so, I am hard charging. I am hard pressing. And I need to ensure that I have people around me that, well, sometimes pump the brakes and say, “Okay, let’s think about this. It’s, it could be a good idea. It could be a bad idea.” And I’ve had more bad ideas than good ideas. But that’s leadership, you have to understand your weaknesses. And I have more weaknesses and strengths, and then build a really good team. And we’ve got a great team here. We really do from top to bottom. The people at this institution deeply love this institution. And I’ve been blessed, Tusculum and Pikeville were, it was the same. They love the institutions and I always said, “I will never lead an institution that’s not a school of opportunity. And that doesn’t have a base that deeply love students and that isn’t student-centric.” And this place is, is as student-centric as any place I’ve seen across the country.


Right, and it has done that by leaving places better than you found them.




And raising the profile would only benefit athletics, academics and everybody, and all.


We got to be inclusive.




We got to be inclusive. So, so I often say this, obviously, you and I we’re diverse. We’re not diverse by the color of our skin. We’re diverse in thought, right, and I want to get to a point in this country where we’re not… we’re not thinking about diversity and the skin tone or what religion or who you love and who you spend your time with. It’s about thought, you know, let’s have diverse thought. And with that thought, I think come, you know, there’s a beautiful outcome in that, and that inclusion, right?




And it takes that diversity and thought to reach, to reach inclusion.


Right, and all the intricacies and the beauty that can come out of it.


Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s me. I’m at… my leadership style is that… and it’s about bringing people together. It’s about unifying around a mission. And it’s always about what’s best for our students, all students, not a certain subset of students, but, but every single student that comes under our umbrella.


Right. Well, Dr. Hurley, this has been an excellent conversation. I really appreciate you joining us here on Athletic Director U.


Thank you so much.


Yes, sir.


Appreciate it.


That was Dr. James Hurley. He’s the president here at Tarleton State University and of course I am Ty Brown with Athletic Director U. And keep in mind, the role of a leader is to create and maintain an environment that people want to be a part of, and as always, be better tomorrow than you are today.