New man on campus: Tarleton State University’s James Hurley on the school’s role in North Texas


Tarleton State University

Main campus enrollment: 13,176

Fort Worth campus enrollment: 1,918 compared to 1,589 for fall 2015 (21 percent growth over five years; more than a 40-year presence in Fort Worth, beginning with the Medical Laboratory Sciences programs)

Number of degree programs offered: 102 (two are doctorate programs: criminal justice Ph.D. and Doctor of Education in educational leadership (Ed.D.)

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Other remote campuses: Waco at McLennan Community College; Midlothian at Navarro College; RELLIS at Bryan College; fully online Global Campus

65 percent freshman retention rate

53 percent overall enrollment growth over the last 10 years

53 percent of students are first-generation

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19:1 student-faculty ratio

Ranked 10th among the top 100 schools in America with an application increase of 113 percent since 2013 (24/7 Wall Street published in USA Today):

James Hurley, the new president of Tarleton State University, could have been one of the students that businessman and philanthropist John Tarleton had in mind is 1895 when he established an endowment in his will to establish a college in Erath County, then an improvised area of Texas.

Hurley was raised in a Kentucky coal camp. Both grandfathers were coal miners and both died of black lung disease. One grandmother made it through the eighth grade and became a teacher’s aide because the need to work didn’t allow her to get the right education.

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“But she was crazy smart,” Hurley said. “She instilled in me the importance of education, and the importance of getting out of that environment through higher education.”

And so, he became a first-generation poverty student from East Kentucky.

Hurley earned a bachelor’s degree in business education and management from the University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Kentucky, where he also served as president from 2013 to 2015. He has a master’s in education from Indiana University and a doctorate in educational leadership and finance from Morehead State University.

“And so, I’m an advocate for educating first generation poverty students,” he said.

That plays into why Tarleton was so attractive to him.

Half the students at Tarleton are first generation college students and half are Pell Grant eligible, which means they’re at or below the federal poverty line.

“That’s us. That’s who Tarleton is. Every institution I’ve learned at or been part of with the exception of IU has been a poverty school. It’s been a missionary school,” he said.

Hurley knew in fifth grade that he wanted to be an educator.

“I just always had a passion for teaching and I didn’t know if I wanted to coach or do something, but I knew I wanted to be in education. I wanted to be a teacher. I always stayed on that path and went the business route – business education accounting, management teacher,” he said.

In Kentucky, he said, by the age of 12, young men had learned three things. They knew how to drive a coal truck, take a shot of bourbon without grimacing and shoot a basketball.

It would be basketball that let him escape coal country but it would be an elementary school fifth grade teacher who showed him the way.

“Miss Irene Strong,” he said.

He was a skilled basketball player and good with numbers.

“You’re going to not allow basketball to use you, but you’re going to use basketball,” she told him. “And you’re going to use academics to make something of yourself.”

That, he says, is the power of a teacher.

He would stay with basketball through college, following Miss Strong’s advice, as a point guard playing with better shooters on the team, he said.

“I was smart enough to know that if they’re better scorers, I probably need to give them the ball,” he said, something he’s trying to pass on to his 13-year-old son.

“He shoots it every single time he touches it, so he didn’t get that gene from me. I was always one of those point guards who tried to make those people around you better and be a good team player,” Hurley said.

That’s a pretty good thing for a top-level administrator to know and do.

On Nov. 12, Hurley announced that Tarleton had accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference and transition to NCAA Division I effective July 1, 2020.

“What a historic day for Tarleton State University,” Hurley said at a signing ceremony. “We are next-level ready. Tarleton is going Division I.”

In an earlier interview, he said that is a change will enhance the main campus and strengthen the Tarleton brand.

“And when we strengthen the Tarleton brand, that creates that high tide, and that high tide will raise all our boats, so strengthening that core brand is important,” he said.

Hurley is the 16th president of Tarleton, coming directly from Tusculum University in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he had served as president since 2017. Tusculum is the oldest university in the Volunteer State, celebrating 225 years of education.

He assumed office Sept. 1, succeeding F. Dominic Dottavio, who stepped down Aug. 31 after 11 years to be a faculty member in Tarleton’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences where he has had an appointment as a tenured professor since coming to the university.

It was the mission of the university that originally drew Hurley’s attention.

“You’d like to say that it’s because of all the great people, but you don’t know people when you’re first introduced to a new position,” he said.

But it also was the opportunity to be part of the Texas A&M system.

“The Texas A&M system, from a national perspective, is a model of success and a lot of other systems are trying to emulate what they’re doing. You’ve seen growth, you’ve seen enhancements in health care, you’ve seen the launching of new campuses,” he said.

What people sometimes forget is that behind all those advancements is funding and leadership. He’s impressed by Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp and what he has been able to do in the last eight years and leading the system forward.

“That’s what I want to be part of,” Hurley said. “He’s been able to leverage his political background, his business fortitude, into growth. He’s a visionary, he’s a long-term thinker. It’s benefiting the state, and certainly benefiting the system and all the system schools.”

He and his wife, Kindall, have two sons, Drew and Carter, and two daughters, Blayklee and Brooklyn.

Hurley completed the Institute for Presidential Leadership at Harvard University and received a certificate of higher education management from Vanderbilt University and a Rank 1 Certification in educational supervision from the University of Kentucky.

He’d like to be settling in for the long haul.

“I promised my wife and we promised each other we wanted to get to a point where we could be at an institutional like Tarleton. We knew that we had to take career steps to get there,” he said. “But I promised her and I promised myself and my family that whatever position we took next, if it was in our control that it would be for a long time.”

Hurley, in a wide-ranging interview with Business Press editors covered a variety of topics.

On the Fort Worth Campus off Chisholm Trail

I had a small window of time in which I had to make a decision whether to move forward in the process. Kendall and I, before we applied for this position, made a visit to Stephenville We stopped at the Fort Worth campus first, because I wanted to see that.

I talked to the consultant quite a bit about opportunity around the school, so I wanted to visit the Fort Worth campus. … I wanted to see location magnitude. Is this something that truly can grow? Because the consultant was saying, this place could grow 6ix to 8,000 students just at the Fort Worth campus alone.

Well, you’re a little leery of consultants, right? Because they’re trying to get you into the fray, and so you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe a couple thousand but six to 8,000, that’s a lot of growth.’ And when we flew in and we kept driving out, and we just continue to see new homes, new buildings, new homes, new buildings, new homes, new buildings. I thought there’s something behind this. And then when we arrived at campus, and we saw the acreage that potentially will be built out, I thought this is real.

Thoughts on the main campus in Stephenville where you just opened a new engineering building?

When you think about engineering, we know statistically in the state of Texas, it’s one of the top three degrees that high school students are pursuing, both male and female. Predominantly male now, but a lot more females are seeking, undergraduate, graduate engineering degrees, which is a good thing. That’s a good thing for society.

So, that’s a cornerstone of our strategic plan on Main Campus. I think we have to continue to develop our allied health and nursing programs. I think it’s really important that we grow those programs to help meet the rule need, Stephenville’s rule. We were founded as an opportunity school to meet rural agricultural needs and so we need to make sure that we’re adhering to that mission.

You foresee new programs in the near future worth talking about?

I think we have to be really strategic and utilizing kind of marketplace demand studies and things that have already been released. For example, there’s a great document that was released in 2017 here in the Metroplex. It was a combination of the three chambers – Arlington, Dallas and Fort Worth. They combined resources to bring in some folks that really understood scope analysis, and looking from the year 2016 through 2024. What are the marketplace needs now? But also, project those out in another 10 years.

We know out of that aerospace. We know that’s a huge opportunity in the Metroplex. Health care and education, and then IT. Those four needs are at the core, and then there’s a lot of other ancillary needs. So how can we at Tarleton meet those needs in the Metroplex? But also, how can we duplicate that in other campuses? We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We don’t want to be all things to all people, but to be truly focused on meeting the current needs, then the future needs.

We launched our Ph.D. in criminal justice in Fort Worth. We don’t offer it anywhere else, because it came out of that assessment that there’s a great need for Ph.D.s and criminal justice in Fort Worth. Having a Ph.D. in criminal justice in Stephenville doesn’t really make a lot of sense because it’s not a need.

Having certain allied health programs. In Stephenville, we’ve got to grow our nursing program. And we’ve got to think about allied health programs in Stephenville where we can recruit students from rural Texas, train them in rural Texas, and hope and pray that they stay in rural Texas, because that’s the only way we’re going to meet those needs in rural Texas is that model.

They’ve got to understand purpose in place, and people. And if we utilize that model, we recruit them, train them and then send them back home. That’s going to be a sustainable model. And that’s the only way we’re going to meet the rural need.

How would you like to work with businesses in terms of determining what courses and programs to offer?

I think it’s a listening and learning tour. It’s having events where we bring those businesses in and have roundtable activity where we’re listening. And we’re asking them what are the skill sets that you see that we either are not producing, or not doing a good enough job producing? I think it starts with that.

I think having our professors and staff out into the communities. We’ve got to be more active in Fort Worth. That’s why we’ve been trying to do that in the last few years. And you’ll see more and more involvement so we can better understand what the CEO, CFO, COOs, managers, whoever’s hiring, we want to know, what are those needs? And how can we fill that gap?

We have something coming up, that’s going to be really important – our new census data. I love census data, because I’m a self-proclaimed statistician. The accountant in me loves that data because it not only tells you where you’ve been, it tells you where you are but it also predicts the next 10 years.

We hope that it’s reflective in where are we going and it breaks down each sector of a nine-year category. So. how many 21 through 30-year-old individuals could we potentially educate in whatever area.

What do you see in terms of financing for education in the state of Texas? Are there some challenges ahead?

In Texas, the difference is we have a state that is growing in population –47 out of the 50 states over the next 10 years will see a decrease in high school graduation numbers because of the birth rates. Texas is not one of those. We’re one of the few states that will see an increase in high school graduations and birth rates.

You have a shrinking pie, but you have a growing population. So how do we balance that? How do we ensure that we are able to afford the cost of education? How can we keep education and debt low? One of my biggest concerns in higher ed is student embeddedness, and how are we going to keep that debt rate low?

I don’t think expecting someone to pay off debt over 30 years enhances quality of life. I get that on a mortgage because you have an asset that you can sell, trade, leave for your family.

So how do we balance this need to provide a high-level quality education at the lowest cost that we can possibly create? That’s where the state and the taxpayers and the investment becomes really important. And that’s a balancing act.

I’ve been a president in Kentucky, I’ve been a president in Tennessee, and a president in Texas. One would say those three states are very similar, and they are. I can tell you. There’s very little difference in Stephenville, Texas, than in Pikeville, Kentucky, or Greenville, Tennessee. The economies are largely based on a sector. You have not had a lot of growth in Stephenville. If the university doesn’t grow, the county is probably not going to grow.

We’re becoming a knowledge-based economy, and that’s not going to change. The jobs that we’re creating and these young people will create over the next 20 years, it’s phenomenal.

We use technology. … We all have these phones now that no matter where we are in the world, we can do business. And the processor in this Apple 10 is as powerful as the processor in my CPU, that’s probably, I don’t know, 500 times that size on my desk. It’s the same processing speed.

If you would have told me 10 years ago that a processor half the size of my thumbnail can compute at the rate of a CPU. I would have said, “Maybe not 10 years, maybe 25.” But we’re already there. So that’s how fast this economy is changing, and it’s knowledge based.

You’re seeing a lot of students these days who’ve been taught volunteerism, community activism, volunteerism from middle school up. It seems that there is an opportunity to graduate students with a social conscience.

Look at our six core values that we try to instill. That’s at the core of who we’ve always been at Tarleton.

(Tarleton State University’s core values are integrity, leadership, tradition, civility, excellence, and service. – Tarleton website)

We talk about our new mantra, Texans Know How. That isn’t just about putting three words on a billboard, and saying that’s our method of operation moving forward. I think Tarleton has … shown that we know how. We want to display that we have evolved from this junior two-year agricultural college that we were at the outset when we only wanted to meet the rural needs in North Central Texas. That was it, not more than probably a few counties then.

Tarleton knows how to evolve. We have this group that’s coming up behind us, thank goodness. They’re more socially aware and in depth than I am. And that’s a good thing. Social awareness, social aptitude is really their DNA.

A lot of folks will say the millennials are very selfish. They’re far from selfish. The post millennials – the G Zers and Gen Xers and all those that are coming – have a social fabric interwoven into their thoughts and if it’s not best for all of us, then let’s not do it.