We’ll Take It From Here

Lately, Arthur Kirk's business wisdom has been a mash-up of topical and somewhat contradictory baseball metaphors.

At a recent talk, Kirk, the president of Saint Leo University, invoked Moneyball — the popular book-turned-film about how the impoverished Oakland Athletics built a winning baseball team — to explain how non-elite universities would need to innovate in order to compete on relatively slim budgets. Showing some hometown pride, he swapped out the Athletics for the Tampa Bay Rays, who play their home games about 40 miles south of Saint Leo's main campus. Kirk juxtaposed the Rays' lean payroll ($42 million) with those of American League rivals the New York Yankees ($197 million) and the Boston Red Sox ($160 million). "My point was that it's not about the resources, it's about resourceful leadership," he says.

On the phone with Inside Higher Ed last week, the morning after Tampa Bay edged out Boston for a playoff spot by beating New York in the final game of the regular season, Kirk reached for a different parallel. In 2008, Tampa Bay signed third baseman Evan Longoria to a nine-year, $44 million contract only a week after he had made his debut. Last week, Longoria hit a pair of dramatic home runs to win the clinching game. The Rays took an expensive risk investing in Longoria before they knew he could cut it in the big leagues, Kirk said. But sometimes a big investment pays off.

Pressed to explain how exactly that squares with the Moneyball ethic, Kirk admitted that it does not. He was just gloating.

Yet the contradiction highlights a problem familiar to many traditional universities: On the one hand, they want to compete in the global market of online higher education. Even before 2008, many lacked the cash or expertise to build an online infrastructure from scratch. As a result, some have ceded their online development and recruitment to outside companies. A cottage industry of online firms — Bisk Education, Embanet-Compass, Deltak, 2tor, Colloquy and others — has emerged to meet this need.

Saint Leo was one of the first to do this, 14 years ago. Now it may be at the front edge of another trend — that of universities that, having made the transition to online education, are dropping their for-profit partners and taking over themselves.

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