Whenever students, faculty, staff and visitors walk across the campus of Saint Leo University, they’ll see a permanent reminder of Dr. Arthur Kirk.
Kirk Hall, dedicated in a ceremony on Oct. 15, is the kind of academic space that Kirk, who retired in the summer of 2015, thinks is important for teachers and students to have.
It is equipped with tools designed to prepare teachers to make maximum use of technology, and what’s known about how students learn.
For instance, there’s a lab where education students can interact with avatars, enabling them to practice teaching techniques and receive immediate feedback.
The building is far different than the facilities that Kirk encountered when he arrived 18½ years ago, on the university’s main campus on State Road 52.
At that time, enrollment was in decline, there were leaking roofs, and air conditioning equipment that was expected to last 20 years, was 37 years old.
In short, the list of challenges was long.
Kirk took the job anyway.
He was attracted to the mission of leading a Catholic, student-centered, university.
And, he said, “I also saw enormous potential, because it had some exceptional people that believed passionately in the institution.
“It looked like the right set of ingredients,” he said.
Kirk Hall is just the latest new building erected during Kirk’s tenure.
All together, the university added more than 1 million square feet of space and completely renovated four buildings, Kirk said.
But, buildings are just one sign of the university’s progress.
“I had an expression that ‘the anthropology was more important than the economics’,” Kirk said.
In other words, “it’s a lot easier to reverse the enrollment problems and financial problems and so forth, than it is to change the culture and build a culture that sustains excellence and success,” he said.
Kirk said he stayed at the university because he enjoyed creating that culture, and he enjoyed working with the university’s staff.
But, as much as he enjoyed that, he also knew there would be a time when it was time to go.
“There is the potential of staying too long. That’s not good for the individual or the organization. That was something that was on my mind for several years,” he said.
Before he left, it was important to him to complete a number of priorities, including the academic building — now called Kirk Hall.
“I really felt that all of the students and all of the faculty deserved that kind of academic facility,” Kirk said.
Over the years, there have been many gratifying moments, Kirk said.
He’s pleased by the results of a survey of the Best Colleges to Work For, conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“They survey the faculty and staff randomly at the institutions,” he said. “And, if you score in the top 10 percent of more than one of their 12 categories, you are placed on the honor roll for Best Colleges to Work For.
“We scored in the top 10 percent of 10 of the 12 categories,” he said.
Those results are particularly meaningful, he said, because of the progress that has been made.
“When we started, we had a fractured culture. So, to have that strength of culture, and organization and people that are very committed and happy to work there, was extremely important to me,” Kirk said.
Raising the university’s profile was important, too, Kirk said.
When he arrived at Saint Leo, he was surprised by how little people knew about the university.
“People who live in Dade City and drove by the campus all of the time didn’t know we were on 16 military bases in six states,” Kirk said.
“That was certainly a surprise and increased the challenge a little bit. Support follows understanding. If they don’t know who you are, where you are and what you do, they’re not going to give very much support,” Kirk said.
The retired university president said he would run into people in Tampa who would say: “Saint Leo, I’ve heard of it. Where is it?”
That has changed over time.
Now, for instance, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn mentions Saint Leo University in the same breath as the University of Tampa, the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College, Kirk said.
Kirk also is pleased that core values adopted by the university in 1998 have become part of the university’s way of life.
Those values — community, respect, responsible stewardship, excellence, personal development and integrity — are taken seriously, Kirk said.
“Each one is defined as a personal expectation of everyone,” he said. “One of those core values is taught very intentionally in every single course in the curriculum, at every level.
The core values, he said, “have become very much part of the (university’s) DNA.
“When I walk around and hear students and faculty talk about the core values, and how important they are, I feel really, really good about that.”
Perhaps one of his most special memories, though, will be the one where, surrounded by family, students, faculty and staff, Kirk saw an academic building named in his honor.
“It was a joyous occasion,” Kirk said.
Published October 21, 2015