What is the proper role of Knox College in the Galesburg community?

By Mike Kroll

Three weeks ago I wrote a column based on a speech I gave to the Galesburg Kiwanis the previous week on the crisis faced by Galesburg. I was not optimistic that this community would respond either properly or in time to permit the long-term survival of this town and I attempted to explain why. Two weeks ago I wrote a second column in which I proposed some actions this community could take to preserve and rebuild the community.

I always hope such columns will spur community discussion but too often such hopes are dashed. Few things give me greater pleasure than when letter writers focus on local issue and offer constructive suggestions or criticism or when there is an open dialog between local elected officials and citizens. I always try to offer an alternative course or action when I am critical of the actions of local officials and I welcome thoughtful debate of my comments.

So I was somewhat pleased that I have heard from a number of Knox College people regarding a two paragraph section in my “New path” column concerning the disengagement of Knox College with the Galesburg community. Last week Knox College's Public Relations Director Karrie Heartlein submitted what was intended to be a refutation of my comments relating to that college. However, as any Knox student could have explained to her she missed the point of my comment entirely. Obviously an explanation is in order for Miss Karrie.

Allow me to quote the two paragraphs in question here:

“Like rivers, the presence of a university would be a major asset to this area that we just don't possess. Certainly Knox College is here but it is also almost totally disengaged from the local community. Declining numbers of Knox graduates choose to remain in Galesburg (for obvious reasons) but more importantly both as an institution and individually as faculty and staff the people of Knox have demonstrated an almost total disinterest in participating in community issues. The people of Knox represent the single largest block of thoughtful and educated people in this community yet most exist as if on an island unto itself. They don't participate in the local political or economic dialog and they do not offer the talents of their faculty, staff and students to help address some of the daunting problems facing Galesburg despite the college's obvious stake in this community's success.”

“If Knox will not participate it is incumbent upon us to recruit such interest from other universities in this state who possess the knowledge and resources that can help Galesburg adapt and reinvent itself. It is much better to invest in partnerships with educational institutions than continue to squander money on consultants of dubious value. Galesburg can invite faculty and students with necessary and relevant skills to assist us in redeveloping and redefining this community. The city and the county should establish continuous programs of paid internship opportunities to advanced undergraduate or graduate students to supplement or enhance existing staff efforts or to help evaluate new ideas. For example, such interns could provide Galesburg director of economic development with a cost-effective staff or provide Knox County with people to help handle administrative chores like purchasing or grant writing.”

My concerns were not with the quality or community conscientiousness of the Knox students. Just last week a Knox faculty member and I talked about how important community service had become to today's Knox students. And I wasn't faulting Knox for its ability to bring visitors to Galesburg for sporting events, homecoming or graduation. In fact I have warmly praised Knox for conducting what I believe to be one of the best graduation ceremonies around (and I'm not just referring to the recent list of vaunted speakers). And while I am pleased that Knox has managed to turn the college's precarious financial situation around and is once again investing sizable sums in the campus that is irrelevant to my criticism as well. For that matter neither does Roger Taylor's globe trotting in search of donors impact the greater Galesburg community very much.

What I was referring to was that while Knox College can properly claim a huge share of the smartest, best educated area residents among the college's faculty and staff very, very few are active in local community governance or planning. They, like most of Galesburg's business people and professionals who likewise have the benefit of greater than typical education and experience,  choose to avoid direct community responsibility. Look at the makeup of local elected officials or those who are active participants on the majority of this community's boards and commissions and you will find few Knox faculty or staff (or Galesburg business people and professionals for that matter).

Sure Roger Taylor and a good number of notable business and professional people are involved in GREDA but that just makes it all the more difficult to explain that organization's total inability to positively impact the Galesburg community. Granted only a very small select number of GREDA members have even a clue what that organization does (or doesn't) do, but the entire group must bear responsibility for failing to recognize the GREDA's ineffectiveness and and as accomplices in misrepresenting it to the community.

Ostensibly one of the benefits of a quality liberal arts education is the development of sound reasoning, critical thinking, constructive skepticism and the wisdom to recognize the pointlessness of continuing to blindly pursue a long-ago failed strategy. A liberal arts student isn't trained for a profession but to be an effective life-long learner who can analyze, adapt and master life's challenges. That's the product Knox College puts out and therefore it is reasonable to presume that the college's faculty and staff possess these same skills. Sadly most of the area leaders do not and the quality of such leaders has been trending downward for some time. My complaint is that so very few of this community's leadership possess the characteristics of such a liberal arts education because those who do – don't participate!

The future of Knox College is inexorably linked to that of greater Galesburg. Our community is now listing badly yet our leadership is not wise enough to begin bailing or chart a new course. It won't matter how much Knox spends on athletic facilities or even if the college does manage to piece together a workable plan for the renovation and reuse of Alumni Hall. If the greater Galesburg community surrounding the college continues its inexorable slide into the abyss Knox will follow it there.

This is a crisis time for Galesburg and hundreds of other small towns across America's “flyover country” that are on the road to extinction because of their inability or unwillingness to adapt. Successfully adapting to changing economic, political, environmental, demographic and agricultural circumstances will not be easy under the best of circumstances but if the best, most thoughtful, most creative, most talented and most worldly minds in this community don't assume leadership roles soon failure is virtually guaranteed.

This is not merely an indictment against Knox College but of the many other well educated and talented businesses people and professionals across this community who have opted out of direct participation in its leadership. While it is always good practice for the wise and the thoughtful to lead us at this point in time it is absolutely critical. Pay close attention to the names on next November's election ballot for Knox County offices and next April's ballot for municipal office and you will see for yourself that the best of us cannot be bothered to seek office. It is now too late to jump into the ring for county office but there remains plenty of time for good people to commit to making a difference in city government come the spring.


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