Higher Education in Florida
Based in a tiny town in Pasco County, Saint Leo University operates more like an entrepreneurial venture than a traditional university.
“If an employee comes up with a good idea, we’ve got some money to fund it. That creates morale in a sense that people know if they come up with a sound idea they are going to get support and they don’t have to jump through a million stupid hoops.”
— Art Kirk
F. Kirk Jr., 64
Title: President of Saint Leo University since 1997
Budget: $142 million ($25.6 million when he arrived)
Endowment: $35 million ($6 million when he arrived)
Recent accolade: 2012 inductee into the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame
His prospects at Saint Leo still seemed doubtful, however. The school’s finances were a mess. The main campus in Pasco County, which had a total enrollment of 700, was in disrepair. The average age of the campus’s air-conditioning units was 37 years — nearly twice their expected service life. Nearly every roof leaked. What little computer technology Saint Leo owned was mismatched and antiquated.
The picture wasn’t entirely bleak for St. Leo, which was founded by Benedictine monks in 1889. Kirk saw potential in the programs the school had established on military bases — an initiative Saint Leo began in 1973 during the Vietnam War, when many universities distanced themselves from working with the military. He also saw potential in another program: In 1992, Saint Leo had become the first four-year college in Florida to open campuses at community colleges, where students could pursue a Saint Leo bachelor’s degree after getting a two-year degree at the community college. Combined, the two initiatives enrolled more than 6,000 students.
“I saw evidence of Saint Leo being entrepreneurial, and I wanted an opportunity to expand on that,” Kirk says. “I saw a place that needed change and knew it, rather than a place that needed change and didn’t know it.”
Kirk’s first priority was to create a business-oriented culture. Everyone — from administrators to professors and support staff — has goals and is held responsible for reaching them.
At quarterly meetings, staff members report on their progress; if they haven’t met their goals, they have to explain why and come up with a plan to avoid a repeat failure.
“I think that higher education is notorious for not holding people accountable for things,” says David Ostrander, Saint Leo’s vice president for university advancement. “That’s one of the things that Dr. Kirk has brought to Saint Leo, the concept of accountability. That has become part of our culture over the last 15 years.”
To grow Saint Leo, Kirk polished up the main campus, repairing buildings and updating the air conditioning. He also built eight new buildings and has three more under construction.
But he focused Saint Leo’s growth strategy primarily on serving non-traditional students — the increasing percentage of students who don’t spend four years on campus. Today, some 2,000 study at St. Leo’s main campus in San Antonio, but the school’s14,000 remaining students take courses online, at satellite campuses or at classrooms in or near military bases. The university is also working with companies to provide degrees and training to employees.
An estimated 75% of Saint Leo’s students are older than 25, and 32% attend school part time — two common parameters used to define “non-traditional” students. In comparison, only 6% of students at the University of Florida are over age 25, and 7% attend school part time.
Saint Leo is one of the rare universities that can afford to give annual raises to its professors. The school is also hiring: In Kirk’s outer office, there’s a stack of books by Parker J. Palmer, “The Courage to Teach,” which Kirk sends to each newly hired professor as a gift. In one two-week period this spring, he inscribed 13 books.
Kirk sees more room to grow, particularly online, where he’s looking to boost enrollment and improve instructional methods. Online teaching, he says, requires “absolute clarity” in determining the learning objectives and how the teacher can best make sure that students master the topic. Saint Leo starts a computer-based pilot program this summer that aims to help adult learners prepare for math placement tests. Based on taking a pre-test, the students would get individualized instruction online that would refresh their math skills. “We know if we can deliver the content in a way that is most effective for the student, then their ability to master that content is far better,” he says.