Lori Rice-Spearman on her desk
TTUHSC’s ninth president,
Lori Rice-Spearman, PhD
(Health Professions ’86)
TTUHSC’s ninth president, tabbed with a trio of historic firsts — alumna, female, PhD — brings fresh perspective to a familiar space.
By Danette Baker

Photographer Neal Hinkle
A neatly stacked trio of leadership books — “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars,” “Douglas McGregor, Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise” and “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” — rest on top of the bookcase that accents a sitting area in the office of TTUHSC President Lori Rice-Spearman, PhD. A succulent, planted in a glass beaker, a family photo of smiling young adults, and a handful of other tchotchkes fill the shelves. A whitewashed desk and matching file cabinet — gifted from an admired colleague upon retirement — replaced the mahogany desk used by her predecessor, and a wall-sized oil painting of a New Mexico landscape completes the office’s aesthetics. Both the furniture and artwork are a nod to Rice-Spearman’s American Indian heritage and her happy place.

Throughout the seven-month search, she led the university as interim president concurrently with her new role as provost and chief academic officer, to which she was named in October 2019. Rice-Spearman’s mission was to maintain the university’s momentum built during the almost 10 years that Tedd L. Mitchell, MD, served as TTUHSC’s president before transitioning full-time to his current role as Texas Tech University System chancellor. TTUHSC had positioned itself on the national stage as a leader in academic health education and was now graduating more health care providers than any health sciences center in the state. The university’s first-ever capital campaign concluded — raising $102.5 million — and each of its campuses was experiencing physical growth. Mitchell also had increased awareness on a state level of the region’s significance as leading producers of the nation’s food, fiber and fuel.

Under Rice-Spearman’s leadership, TTUHSC received reaffirmation of its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. And then, her focus switched to leading the university’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, earning statewide and national praise for the institution’s efforts and community partnerships.

What Rice-Spearman did under the dire circumstances between early February and May 2020 gained the presidential search committee’s attention. “We knew we clearly had the best candidate right in front of us,” said TTU System Regent Mark Griffin, the presidential search committee chairman. He introduced Rice-Spearman on June 5, 2020, as TTUHSC’s ninth president – the first alumna, the first to hold a degree other than an MD, and the first female to lead any of the TTU System’s four universities. Hiring her, Griffin noted, was not about making a statement, but making a difference.

Rice-Spearman’s leadership during the early months of the pandemic, said Griffin, was certainly notable. Yet, as a potential president, she brought so much more to the table: an alignment with TTUHSC’s values-based culture, a stellar resume of service and scholarship accomplishment, and a track record of operating outside-the-box since adolescence.

Doing Things Differently
As a young girl growing up in Odessa, Texas, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Rice-Spearman’s interests deviated from many of her peers. “I’m told that I was incessantly curious from a very young age.” The Christmas she was 7, Rice-Spearman took greater pleasure in mixing and burning things with the magnifying glass and chemicals in her brother’s chemistry set than baking a cake in her Easy-Bake Oven.

At Nimitz Junior High, Rice-Spearman joined the science club, where Mr. Teinert, the adviser, fostered the undeniable passion of the club’s only female member. As a high school student at Odessa Permian, Rice-Spearman led efforts to begin a health care Explorer program at Odessa’s Medical Center Hospital — a division under the Boy Scouts of America to gain hands-on experiences in health care. She also served the hospital as a candy striper, a name given to the young women volunteers. These experiences established the foundation of her interest in health care and charted her career in laboratory sciences.

She’ll hold you accountable when you’ve screwed up, yet you still feel completely human when she’s done.
Deborah Finalyson
Executive Director
American Red Cross
Rice-Spearman’s parents had a significant influence, shaping her worldview of facing challenges as they came, never shying away from difficulty.

“If you ever have a chance to meet Lori’s parents, you’ll understand very quickly why she is such an amazing woman,” said Deborah Finlayson, executive director of the American Red Cross, whose friendship with Rice-Spearman began as they led the Junior League of Lubbock as president and vice president from 2004-2005. “They’re good, grounded people. They’ve done well for themselves but remain humble. That’s who Lori is. She has a confidence that’s empowering instead of intimidating. She’ll hold you accountable when you’ve screwed up, yet you still feel completely human when she’s done.”

Jan Rice encouraged her daughter’s inquisitive nature with the Encyclopedia Britannica. Page after page, she introduced a young Rice-Spearman to the 30,000-plus entries, first keeping her entertained by looking at the photos and then later with a deeper dive into the content by assigning a report as a form of discipline when Rice-Spearman’s attitude or actions warranted correction.

Sam Rice gave his daughter her first paying job when she was 13 on the custodial restroom crew (a team of one) for Sam Rice Auto Parts, located just blocks from the hospital. Within a year, Rice-Spearman advanced to answering phones and then earned a provisionary driver’s license and began to deliver parts to customers across West Texas. As part of their Sunday family time, she and her father studied the company’s key performance indicators, which Rice-Spearman logged on a hand-drawn spreadsheet inside a manila file folder.

The Rices taught life lessons that still apply. “Do your best job and hold yourself accountable,” Rice-Spearman added. “They encouraged resiliency by having us try things often, even if we failed. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m not afraid to take risks.”

Rice-Spearman chose to pursue her degree in clinical laboratory sciences at TTUHSC — a member of the program’s first class — instead of accepting admission to an established program at Baylor University. She said the decision was easy. TTUHSC had gained a solid reputation, and its location allowed her to stay in West Texas. She then joined the School of Health Professions faculty in 1987 and held several school positions, including dean and chair of the Department of Laboratory Sciences and Primary Care.

Her ability to recognize opportunities led the school to its height as the largest health professions school in Texas and one of the largest in the nation in the breadth of programs and number of enrolled students and graduates. Five of the school’s 20 accredited academic programs are “first-in-the-nation.” The school boasted a 93% first-time pass rate for students required to complete licensure or certification requirements, had a 100 % job placement rate for licensed practitioners, and 100% of the speech-language pathology graduates passed the national certification exam 11 consecutive years.

The statistics, while commendable, are also often the litmus test of academic success; but Rice-Spearman saw people and their potential. People like Sixtus Atabong, PA-C, (Health Professions ‘05,’ 02). Atabong is the practice manager and neurosurgery physician assistant for Grace Clinic Spine Care Center in Lubbock, Texas. He also is the founder and CEO of Purpose Medical Mission, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities with the knowledge and tools to address the global threat of health disparity and lack of basic education. Atabong and his team (which includes several TTUHSC alumni) have helped build clinics, churches, and hospitals in Cameroon, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

TTUHSC President Lori Rice-Spearman, PhD, bumps elbows with Chisom Nwoye, MD, family medicine resident, during a visit to the Odessa campus.
Atabong met Rice-Spearman, then School of Health Professions associate dean of learning outcomes and assessments, by chance when he stopped in the clinical lab sciences office to get directions to the admission office. His visit led to inquire about the program. Without her intuition, Atabong said he would not be where he is today. He moved from Africa to pursue the American dream but had little resources. For three days, Atabong had lived in his car, but within 24 hours of their meeting, Rice-Spearman had assisted him with admission to the program, equipped him with used textbooks she had gathered from professors and connected him with the financial aid office.

Kitty Harris-Wilkes, PhD, met Rice-Spearman through a working relationship with her spouse, Doug Spearman. Their relationship grew as Rice-Spearman pursued her doctoral degree in the College of Human Sciences at TTU, where Harris-Wilkes led the Center for the Study of Addiction. They became respected colleagues when Rice-Spearman was named dean.

Her track record and ingenuity in identifying the need for mental health clinicians led Harris-Wilkes to collaborate with her in developing the School of Health Professions’ most recent department — clinical counseling and mental health — and establish a scholarship to support its students.

“I was impressed that she knew what we had on the main campus in terms of addiction recovery, but she took it to another level by understanding the need for clinical training,” said Harris-Wilkes, who now leads NLW Partners as president and CEO. The company provides research, education and consultation to higher education institutions on the best practices of addiction recovery, education and research. “There’s a real intuitive sense on her part of what might make situations better for people and a willingness to go after it, which I think bodes well for her in her new position.”

Blame it all on her roots, Lori Rice-Spearman, PhD, shows up in heels at her father’s old automotive shop, Sam Rice Auto Parts in Odessa, Texas.
But it was Rice-Spearman’s alignment to TTUHSC’s values-based culture that the search committee took notice of while reviewing her application.

“Not only does Lori have the knowledge and skills, but she also has the ability to connect with people — at work, within her family and in the community,” said Kari Dickson, PhD, vice provost, and the university’s liaison to the state and regional accrediting bodies. Before the pandemic, she and Rice-Spearman taught a cooking class at High Point Village, a support community for individuals with different intellectual and developmental abilities. Rice-Spearman’s spouse is the executive director.

“We talk a lot about emotional intelligence nowadays. You can have the education, you can have all of the experience in the world, but there’s something else out there that makes good leaders great,” Dickson said. “I think that’s what she brings to the table. She makes people want to work with her and for her; because it’s not about her.”

Lori Rice-Spearman speaking with people
Lori Rice-Spearman, PhD, recognizes front-line team members for their hard work during the pandemic.
She makes people want to work with her and for her, because it’s not about her.
— Kari Dickson, PhD
vice provost, university liaison to state and
regional accrediting bodies
While interim, Rice-Spearman rallied university leadership and successfully transitioned university operations, academics, research and clinical services to remote environments and weathered the storm without missing a beat. She supported innovative and collaborative grassroots efforts that significantly impacted the region and the state, such as manufacturing and decontamination of personal protective equipment, staffing a COVID-19 testing laboratory, and producing a viral transport medium for safe handling coronavirus specimens.

“Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what they are made for,” said Mitchell, referencing John A. Shedd’s quote. “Dr. Rice-Spearman was distinctly made for this challenge; she’s proved it over and over again. … TTUHSC is in good hands moving forward.”

“We had this tremendous momentum pre-COVID, and I think that allowed us to weather the challenges brilliantly as a university,” Rice-Spearman notes. “We were able to pivot quickly in the two primary areas that other universities and HRIs (health research institutions) struggled with — telehealth and innovative academic programming online. We did it in a way where we could still collaborate with other universities, supporting the state in several endeavors to meet challenges.

“I realized early on we didn’t want to lose these important drivers in our quest to deliver health care during a public health emergency.”

By early fall, Rice-Spearman had turned this realization into reality with a new vision for the university: Transform health care through innovation and collaboration. An out-of-the-box approach where “silos, turf wars and politics” don’t interfere with the opportunities to transform health care.