September 29, 2023

Trendsetters: Universities

Mike Vogel | 1/1/2008

[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Arthur F. Kirk Jr.

Saint Leo University
President, Saint Leo

Reading: Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”

Recently finished: Laurence Gonzales’ “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why”

Recently purchased: Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III.” “I buy books long before I read them.”

Famous St. Leo alumni: Academy Award-winning actor Lee Marvin and singer/songwriter Stephen Stills

Exercise: Took up lacrosse at 55. Once bicycled across America. Occasional triathlon, a 15k last year, some golf, would like to play tennis more.

Proud of: Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine ranks Saint Leo first nationally in the number of bachelor’s in social sciences awarded to African-Americans and fourth in bachelor’s in business, management, marketing.

Go back a decade. Saint Leo College had plenty of pride in its past. Yesteryear included being the first Catholic college in Florida in 1889. In 1898, the Pasco County college broke the law to enroll a black student. In 1973, it went counterculture, offering classes on military bases to make it easier for service people to earn degrees at a time when higher ed shunned the military.

Saint Leo’s problem was its present. Roofs leaked. Air conditioners didn’t work. The $25-million budget was so tight that teachers provided their own computers. Campus enrollment was about 700 with another 300 on weekends.

That’s what greeted new president Arthur F. Kirk Jr. An experienced small
college president who did his dissertation on small college survival strategies, Kirk knew turnarounds. A tactic: Ask faculty, students and staff what one thing he should change if he could only change one. The answer usually meant removing someone in a key post. It fit his idea of academia triage — seeking fast, critical changes that build credibility and convey “it’s clearly going to get better.”

Saint Leo became one of the first schools to offer complete online degree programs nationwide. He expanded Saint Leo’s continuing education for the military, which brought in tuition — the key revenue stream at small, private liberal arts institutions. (Saint Leo is now the sixth-largest provider of education to the military.)

Catholic himself, Kirk, 61, says he’s more motivated in a Catholic environment. It’s uplifting to be around people who dedicate their lives to faith and service, he says.

Today, 11 years after Kirk arrived, Saint Leo is now a university with a $105-million budget. On campus, it has 2,500 undergraduate, graduate and weekend students. Four new dorms opened since 2003. Two nearby apartment buildings were purchased and opened as dorms last year. Another dorm likely will come within three years and a business school building is on the way. A new student center opened in October. Some 13,000 students are online and at 15 satellite centers in towns and military bases in six states.

“It’s a complicated place. I’ve made it more complicated,” Kirk says.

Tags: Trendsetters, North Central, Education

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