With a touch of reverence and an injection of humor, Tusculum University inaugurated Dr. James Hurley Friday, Oct. 12, as its 28th president and formally launched a dynamic future for the 225-year-old higher education institution.
The celebration in Pioneer Arena attracted about 1,000 people to watch U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Dr. Gregory W. Nelson, chairman of Tusculum’s Board of Trustees, conduct the investiture and Dr. Hurley take the oath of office. Dr. Hurley, who has served as president since October 2017, delivered a stirring inaugural address that highlighted how Tusculum is advancing to the next level of excellence.
“I believe our future at Tusculum University is bright,” Dr. Hurley said. “Our best days lie ahead as we forge the way of access, equality and opportunity. We must not fear failing forward. We must be bold and take strategic risks. We must embrace change and disruption. And we must strive to become a first-choice destination for students in the Appalachian region.”
In the audience were Tusculum students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, who have experienced Dr. Hurley’s transformative leadership firsthand. They were joined by Dr. Hurley’s family as well as dignitaries from Congress, regional leaders and delegates from colleges and universities throughout the Southeast.
On a cool but sunny day, Tusculum celebrated the inauguration with activities that aligned with its Judeo-Christian environment. Hailey Sanders, Student Government Association junior class chancellor, read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Father, We Thank Thee.” And Ashton Watson, chairman of the campus’ Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, read Mark 12:30-31, which commands individuals to love God with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The audience listened to Dr. Hurley describe exciting initiatives already under way and new advancements on the horizon at Tusculum.
One of the most impactful is the proposed college of optometry, which will address the ocular health needs of Appalachia and increased demand for optometrists. Tusculum is engaged with the Accreditation Council on Optometric Educational Board to secure accreditation and projects to have its first class enrolled in 2020.
“We’re working to build the very best college of optometric medicine in the country,” Dr. Hurley said. “It will be a college of inclusion and opportunity, one that focuses on meeting the ocular needs of the young and old, the rich and poor and the people who have been denied access for far too long. Ocular disease is rapidly growing out of control across Appalachia, and we have to stop it.”
In his speech, Dr. Hurley shared significant news about the optometry school that will contribute to its long-term success.
“Today, I have the honor of announcing that our college of optometry will henceforth be called the Niswonger College of Optometric Medicine in honor of Dr. Scott Niswonger’s commitment to our newest college and his unwavering support of Tusculum University for the past 30 years,” Dr. Hurley said. “Dr. Niswonger has given nearly $70 million during his tenure and service to this institution, and his commitment can be found in nearly every town and city across East Tennessee.”
Among the projects funded at Tusculum by Dr. Niswonger are the Scott M. Niswonger Commons and the sports complex that includes the football, baseball and soccer fields. He is a member of the university’s Board of Trustees,
Regionally, he is well-known for establishing the Niswonger Foundation, which funds college scholarships and supports schools at all levels, and was the lead donor for construction of Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City.
Dr. Hurley said Tusculum will explore other new programs that will meet the health care needs of Central Appalachia. He said the university will begin with the establishment of the physician assistant program in 2020 and possibly create new programs in nursing, behavioral health as well as occupational and physical therapy.
Tusculum transitioned to university status July 1, and that elevated its stature and empowered it to reorganize the institution into six colleges. Besides the Niswonger College of Optometric Medicine, the university has added the College of Science, Technology and Math and the College of Health Sciences since Dr. Hurley came to the university. The others, which were already in existence, are the College of Business, the College of Education and the College of Civic and Liberal Arts.
Dr. Hurley also noted other progress, such as an investment of more than $1.5 million to improve the campus dining experience through a new partnership with Chartwells and the opening of a full-service Chick-fil-A restaurant on campus.
Like most leaders, Dr. Hurley is preparing for the future. He identified many projects that will further demonstrate the comprehensive education Tusculum provides. They include:
- A $4.8 million investment to renovate Tredway Hall so it can serve as the new home for the College of Business and College of Education.
- Renovation of aging residence halls, starting with Katherine Hall in the summer
- A new wellness center for students, faculty and staff
Another important aspiration is the initiation of the Tusculum 225 – University Rising capital campaign.
“Our focus is to increase philanthropic support that will expand our 225-year heritage by increasing scholarship support to reduce student debt, increase faculty and staff support to retain and attract excellent talent and enhance infrastructure to keep our beautiful campus vibrant and attractive,” Dr. Hurley said.
He expressed gratitude to all sectors of the audience, including his wife, Kindall, and their three children. But he paid special attention to the students.
“Our world will be a better place because of the impact each of you will make,” Dr. Hurley said. “You challenge us daily, you keep our spirits young, you demand excellence, you display true love and compassion, you give us hope that tomorrow will be better than today and you have made our family feel very welcomed and made us feel a part of your student body family.”
In providing his charge to Hurley, Alexander touted Tusculum’s roots, which include the university opening two years before Tennessee became a state. He also commended Tusculum for teaching students the importance of giving back, citing the creation of Nettie Day during which they perform community service projects to honor Nettie Fowler McCormick, a Chicago resident who bestowed gifts to Tusculum most of her life.
But he also emphasized the talent Dr. Hurley brings to Tusculum.
“First, Dr. Hurley knows the territory,” Alexander said. “He grew up in the coalfields of Kentucky. Second, he has a passion for education. He was inspired by his fifth grade teacher to himself become a teacher. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, and then he became president of the university that he graduated from.
“We know he thinks big. He’s only been president for a year, but we have an idea of what the future may hold – continuing the tradition of education, leading the expansion of bold opportunities, transforming from a college to a university, creating a college of optometry and a school of behavioral health that can address the region’s needs, such as the opioids crisis.”
Six individuals, most with ties to Tusculum, provided greetings to Dr. Hurley and extolled his virtues, including Dr. Nelson, who added some humor to the occasion.
“I can honestly say it feels a bit strange to be here doing this when you started to work last October,” Dr. Nelson said. “Some rumors are floating around that maybe the Board of Trustees was giving you a trial run. If things didn’t work out, we just wouldn’t have this inauguration. I’m not going to confirm or deny any of those rumors that are going around, but if I were to give you an honest opinion, you passed your first year with flying colors. We’re glad to have you here.”
Turning serious, Dr. Nelson recalled the goals Dr. Hurley identified during the application process, all of which have been accomplished or are nearing that stage. He said the board was impressed with Dr. Hurley’s credentials, track record and direct approach and said Dr. Hurley convinced the search committee of his capability, energy and passion. A year later, Dr. Nelson said, the board has full confidence in Dr. Hurley.
Dr. Nelson reminded Dr. Hurley that the president stands on the tall shoulders of his predecessors, donors, present and former faculty members, the Board of Trustees and Tusculum alumni. Nelson said these visionaries will inspire him to meet the university’s mission.
“Why must you succeed in the charge we give you today?” Nelson asked. “We need you to fuel our students’ hopes, dreams, knowledge, capability and love for engaging in communities so that they can be successful for our world. Tusculum students have been that success in the past, and they will be in the future.”
The video of Dr. Hurley’s inauguration is available on Tusculum’s YouTube channel.