Stephen Spinelli’s college football coach used to tell him to stop thinking about problems and to start thinking about opportunities.
Now, Spinelli is about to see whether that approach works as well in ivy-covered administration offices as it did on the gridiron. As Babson College’s new president greeted new and returning students in the past few days, the uncertain future of higher education weighed heavily on his mind.
Mergers. Closures. Ever-increasing tuition costs colliding with a shrinking college-age demographic.
Is Spinelli sweating a bit? Maybe. But he’s also smiling. The need for knowledge has never been greater, and it’s increasing by the day, he argues. He tells his colleagues at other universities: It’s time to start figuring out how to answer that need.
Spinelli actually arrived at the business school campus nearly nine months ago, long before the first classes for this school year begin on Wednesday. In part, it was to help with the transition, as Kerry Healey prepared to leave the president’s office after six years. But Spinelli did something else: He jump-started work on a new strategic plan for the college, one that could reshape its approach to education for years to come.
That project is well underway and should be completed this fall. He doesn’t want to discuss the details yet, not until he has had more deliberations with Babson’s faculty.
But Spinelli, 64, gladly talks about his broader view for Babson:
He wants to double down on entrepreneurship, in all its forms, and he wants to build a broader community of “lifelong learners” beyond the leafy confines of Babson’s Wellesley campus.
To understand his mind-set, take a trip back in time to his days as captain of the football team at the former Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College). His coach, W. James Hindman, had made a small fortune in the nursing home business before focusing on football full time. But Hindman still had that entrepreneurial itch and saw an opportunity with a small group of oil-lube stores in Utah, called Jiffy Lube. Hindman bought the chain in 1979 and moved the headquarters to Maryland.
Hindman christened it Jiffy Lube International, to underscore his ambition to turn Jiffy Lube into an oil-changing empire. And he brought a number of his former football players into the fold to make it happen — including Spinelli.
Spinelli moved from Jiffy Lube’s corporate office while in his late 20s to establish what would be the chain’s largest franchise, in his hometown of Springfield. While there, he trekked to Babson every Wednesday for seven years to earn his MBA. From the start, he saw how academics and the business world could intersect.
Spinelli earned his doctorate in economics at Imperial College London and became a Babson professor and administrator. He left Babson in 2007 to lead Philadelphia University and, eventually, to help merge it with Thomas Jefferson University. (The two schools combined in 2017.)
He doesn’t see such a merger on the horizon for Babson. But he does see the need at Babson for more partnerships — with other schools, and with more companies.
Babson’s business focus gives it a particular advantage over many colleges and universities. It consistently ranks as the top school for entrepreneurship in US News & World Report’s rankings. A Babson degree — there are more than 2,400 undergrads and 900-plus graduate students seeking one today — remains in high demand.
But Spinelli says he isn’t content with just being number one again. He wants to elevate Babson’s game as a “lifelong education partner,” particularly with alumni, extending four- or five-year relationships into 40- or 50-year relationships.
Babson offers certificates in advanced management, but Spinelli wants to develop other methods to reach adult learners. Toward that end, the school already has outposts in downtown Boston, San Francisco, Miami, and Dubai. He wants to evaluate that mix, as well as more ways of delivering education online.
He’s even toying with hiring a “vice president of everywhere” who would be charged with figuring it out.
Roughly 600 first-years arrived for orientation last week, and Spinelli raced out of his office to meet them. He’s excited about the role Babson can play in their lives. But he’s also looking beyond young students, on the cusp of their careers, to target a much broader market.
It’s time again to stop thinking about problems and to start thinking about opportunities.