It was the flashing light on an answering machine that would illuminate Dr. Lance Tatum’s path back home to Troy University.
The two-time TROY graduate was working at a small two-year school in Georgia and had been out of town for the weekend when Dr. Don Jeffrey left the message that would open the first of many doors to Tatum during his career with the University.
“I hit the button to listen to the message and it was Don Jeffrey,” Tatum recalls. “TROY had started a sport management program and he wanted me to come talk to him about a job. That was on a Sunday, I was on campus Wednesday, interviewed and was lucky enough to get a call back telling me I was hired and needed to be in Troy Sept. 1.”
Nearly 25 years later, after holding several positions, both in the classroom and in administration, Tatum is retiring from TROY and preparing for a new chapter – that of a college president. Beginning June 1, he will begin his new role as President of Northwest Missouri State University.
“It’s been a career goal of mine for the past 15 years to reach a university president’s position,” Tatum said. “I am extremely excited about beginning this new role in June. Northwest Missouri is an incredible university, and serving as its President is an opportunity to continue my professionally growth. I’ve had a great career at TROY, I have loved my life at Troy, and I have had lots of reasons to stay and little push to leave, which tells you the strength of the pull I felt drawing me to Northwest.”
Tatum and his wife, Jill, were honored by the University with a reception on May 3.
Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. said Tatum has played key roles in many remarkable achievements in the life of the University, including the establishment of the Ph.D. program in Global Leadership, leading TROY to become the first university in the state to focus on the Alabama Reading Initiative and the forging of partnerships such as the one the University enjoys with Montgomery’s Valiant Cross Academy.
“Dr. Tatum has done so well in everything we’ve asked him to do since he came home to TROY in 1998,” Dr. Hawkins said. “We celebrated when he came home to be a faculty member, but you could tell that was not where he was going to stay. He had ambitions to have broader influence and over time he became a departmental chair, he became a dean, he became Vice Chancellor for our Global Campus, and became Vice Chancellor of our Montgomery Campus. And, when Dr. (Earl) Ingram made his decision to retire, Dr. Tatum was there, well prepared, and we were thrilled when he said yes to the role of Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. He has done some remarkable things over time, and we are extremely grateful for him and all that he has done for Troy University.”
As a student, Tatum came to TROY following two years attending Wallace Community College where he played baseball.
“In that second year, I came to grips with the idea that I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player, although when I left high school that was my single focus,” he said. “I had a chance to play beyond Wallace, but I just had the epiphany that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”
It was Tatum’s father who helped to provide the insight into the value of a college education, giving him the chance to work in a real-world setting. Still, he had yet to figure out his career path.
“I enrolled in Troy State and came here with no idea of what I was going to do. I knew I enjoyed sports. I knew I enjoyed the outdoors. I met with the departmental faculty and an advisor. She said, ‘well you have a lot of credits that are going to fit into this degree program, let’s try it for a year and see what happens’.”
That would start Tatum down the path to a career in higher education. He would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in physical education/recreation and then a master’s degree in Foundations of Education from TROY.
While completing his Master’s degree at TROY, Tatum was encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. Because of the strong connection Don Jeffrey had with the Sport Management faculty at Florida State, Tatum was directed to Tallahassee, Florida. “Ending up in Tallahassee was just an unbelievable opportunity for me. When I left TROY in the summer of 1990, I often thought ‘would there be a pathway back to TROY?’”
While attending FSU, Tatum was given a Graduate Teaching position teaching in the Physical Education department. “I ended up really enjoying the idea of teaching, even though I still thought athletics was what I would do. That was the focus behind getting the Ph.D.,” he said. “I would go to Florida State, gain experience in the athletic department, make the needed athletic connections, build a network, complete my Ph.D. in sport management and I would be positioned to find a job in athletics.
However, during his time at Florida State, Tatum kept getting opportunities to teach. “I just felt comfortable in front of a classroom. Somewhere along the way, God decided that maybe athletics wasn’t going to be my destination, but that education was where I would have my greatest opportunity to impact others.”
In his first role at TROY, Tatum would get the opportunity to embrace his love of teaching.
Later, when Jeffrey would become Dean of the College of Health and Human Services, Tatum would see the next door in his TROY career swing open – the role of Department Chair.
“Serving as interim Department Chair was incredible. I really enjoyed it, and the faculty were supportive of me and what I wanted to do in moving parts of the department forward. Next thing I know, Dr. Hawkins told me he thought I would make a good Department Chair, and asked me to do it on a more permanent basis. That is how I got started in administration, and I really enjoyed the idea of having an impact on the lives of students and having an impact on the direction and vision of the department.”
The transition to the administrative role wasn’t difficult for Tatum, even though it could have been somewhat intimidating.
“I worked in a department where most of the faculty were the faculty I had for classes as a student,” he said. “So, it was easy in one respect and terrifying in another. Joyce Sorrell, Cathy Flynn, Tony Adcock, these were all people I had taken classes with as an undergraduate student. They were very encouraging and supporting.”
Yet another pair of opportunities would have a tremendous impact on Tatum’s future.
“In the fall of 2005 I was selected as a Chancellor’s Fellow. That and becoming the faculty athletic representative were the two early opportunities that changed my trajectory,” he said, noting that both opportunities enabled him to become more familiar with the University’s leadership.
It was serving as a Chancellor’s Fellow that led to Tatum becoming interim Dean of the College of Education. Then-Provost Dr. Ed Roach served as Tatum’s mentor in the Fellows program.
“Dr. Roach called me one day and said that Donna Jacobs was taking a position at the University of North Alabama, and after speaking with the Chancellor they both agreed I would be a good interim dean,” he said. “It was through the Chancellor’s Fellows and working as a dean that I first began thinking I could one day be a college president.”
Becoming the interim dean brought along with it the challenge of overseeing the design and construction of Hawkins Hall, the home to the College of Education, a task Tatum called a “great learning experience.”
Tatum credits a pair of mentors who taught him a lot about being a dean.
“Don Hines and Bill Richardson really impacted my life when I became a dean. They taught me how to be a senior administrator,” he said. “We used to have lunch almost every week. If you knew Don Hines, he was a very plain-spoken gentleman. He was great at giving advice. And I still connect with Bill Richardson on occasion to this day. Those two gentlemen really poured into me and helped grow me from being a department chair to being a dean.”
Following his role as Dean, Tatum would go on to oversee Global Campus for a time, which brought with it tremendous experience in online education, and later would serve as Vice Chancellor of the University’s Montgomery Campus before becoming Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
As an SVC, Tatum would face one of the most challenging times in the history of the University – the COVID-19 pandemic. After an international trip in early 2020 to Italy and Slovenia and an early February trip to Washington, D.C., Tatum began to hear news that some of the University’s study abroad trips, including a trip to China planned for Spring Break, might have to be postponed. Or even worse, cancelled all together.
After consulting with Chancellor Hawkins, the Coronavirus Taskforce was formed with Tatum serving as chair to address questions and advise leadership on decisions that would need to be made should things become worse.
“I really thought the COVID-19 situation would end within 6-months — that there wouldn’t be much complexity to this, and after 6 months, all would have ended and we would be right back where we started 2020,” he remembered. “It got a whole lot more complicated.”
The biggest complication came on March 14, 2020, when the decision was made to shift to all online classes. The following Monday, that massive transition had been achieved.
“That pivot at that moment was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen in my professional life,” he said. “That is the extraordinary thing about Troy University – when it really gets difficult – when our backs are against the wall – we have this incredible ability to pull together and do what is in the best interest of the University.”
While unprecedented, the pandemic and the University’s response to it is just one of the many experiences that Tatum says he will always remember from his time at TROY.
“At each career opportunity, I have just been so blessed. I have worked with great people, I’ve had great opportunities, and I’ve had great support,” he said. “I’m not sure I could say that a particular position or job was the most satisfying, because they were all satisfying.”
And, while he feels blessed to have served TROY in so many different roles, it is the University’s people he will miss the most.
“My success has come because of relationships that I have built at Troy. Jill and I will miss the people, we will miss the deep friendships,” he said. “There have been so many colleagues who have poured into me over the years. They helped me to grow professionally and personally. I leave here full. I’m happy about the work I’ve done, I’m pleased with the people I have worked with, and I know there is a great future ahead of Troy University.”