Roger Taylor settling in as Knox College president


by Norm Winick


When Roger Taylor took over the presidency of Knox College on an interim basis in September, 2001, he wasn't sure he wanted the job permanently. He was a 1963 graduate of Knox and had been a member of the Board of Trustees since 1988, chairing it for two years. He had recently retired, following a successful legal career as a partner with Kirkland and Ellis, a major Chicago-based international law firm. Though he had grown up in Fulton County and still had a home near Ellisville, Taylor and his wife Anne, also an attorney, weren't sure that small-town life was the life for them.

That's all changed. After being named President in February 2002, Roger says he sure likes it now. "It's a rare privilege; it's a great job. Very few people get to do this."

Since serving as President of the Board, Taylor has learned on the job that the presidency doesn't work the way Board members think it does. "The Board doesn't realize how complicated it is. They don't understand how much listening a president needs to do. The Board doesn't know how ineffective it would be for a president to boss people around. As an example, if I thought it would be a good idea for us to offer Swahili as a course and I told the Dean to do that, it would not be accepted and there would be a revolt. It's a lot more democratic than the board understands. The by-laws say that curriculum is the province of the faculty; that's their area of expertise. Not working through channels does not work."

"The hardest thing I've had to do is 'be patient.' I did litigation and trial work at a big firm. Not only was patience not a virtue, it was a handicap. I became an impatient guy. Here, I'm learning to be patient. It's a good thing. There are many more constituents with a legitimate stake in the enterprise; they are entitled to share with the President what they think about things."

Soon after Taylor took over, the college announced a restructuring of the curriculum, including in a Knox education four areas of study: foundations (some coursework in humanities, arts, science and social studies); specialization; key competencies (writing, speaking, math, second language); and experiential learning (out-of-class hands-on experiences.) The first three areas have been implemented but Taylor says they are still working to develop the center that will coordinate community service and other elements of experiential learning. "It's taking a little longer than we had hoped but we are looking for a director at this time."

The biggest problem facing Taylor and Knox College is raising money, he admits. "We have an underdeveloped sense of philanthropy toward the institution on the part of its alumni. We had a football reunion not too long ago. There were 108 people present, all passionate about the college. I'd bet 80 percent have never given a penny to Knox."

"At Carleton College (Northfield, Minn.), 65 percent of alumni give to the college; at Knox, it's 28 percent." He says he has discussed alumni giving with the Board and with others on campus and they are looking at ways to motivate graduates to increase their contributions. Taylor admits that changing the team names from Siwash to Prairie Fire has had a detrimental effect on alumni giving. It was a decision made before Taylor's time and he has taken it into consideration, "I've thought about bringing 'Siwash' back  but we must move on."

The problems that beset fundraising efforts are not reflected in admissions at all. "They've done a bang-up job! We're meeting our goals. Last year our goal was 365 and we had 402 new students. I have really good vibes about the incoming class; I hear stories that are good." Knox's total enrollment today is around 1,245 students. Taylor says that's where they want to be. "About ten years ago, the Board did a study and concluded that 1,200 was the right number; I agree. This is the first year we've been at 1,200 since the 1970s. We need to see if we can sustain it." He says that if they can bring in at least 345 students each fall, after attrition, that would theoretically maintain an enrollment of 1,200.

While Monmouth College and the Illinois State Scholarship Commission are both  decreasing their merit-based financial aid and concentrating on need-based assistance, Knox has no plans to do so. "We still  want those top students. Knox is good for them and they are good for the other students. We do try to make it affordable for all our admitted students."

Knox is also continuing its efforts to attract international students. "We have more international students than most schools - at about nine percent of our student body. I was afraid that the federal restrictions on student visas after September 11th would depress those numbers. We had fewer applicants but still had about our traditional number enroll. The international kids enrich the experiences of the American kids. They add some sophistication and cachet to campus. It's important that the college shows students from other countries what Knox and Galesburg is like."

Taylor admits that the biggest hindrance to Knox's ability to attract students is Galesburg itself. "Being in Galesburg hurts our ability to attract certain students. A few years ago, we surveyed 700 prospectives who went somewhere else and the biggest reason given was our location. Part of it is just the physical distance from Chicago; some kids turn up their noses at small towns. We can't do much about that. For the others, we have to be more positive about what Galesburg has to offer. We're talking up Galesburg a lot more now than we used to. Rather than being sheepish about our home town, we now show it off in a positive way. We take people to a thriving Seminary Street; in the past, we'd talk up history and take them to cemeteries."

"The people of Galesburg should talk up Knox, too. That would help us."

Academically, Taylor is very proud of Knox. "We're about to sign an agreement with the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. We just signed one with the George Washington School of Medicine. I'm happy with where the school is but we still need to enhance institutional self-confidence and boost our reputation."

Financially, there is much work to be done. "We have been ruthlessly driving down endowment spending. Since I started in 2001, we have gone from spending $7 million to $3 million a year to support our operational budget." Despite a $125 million fund drive that ended a few years ago, Knox's endowment stands at $52 million. "About $80 million of the money we raised was deferred; we won't see it for some time. Of the rest, much of it was spent."

Compared to other Midwest liberal arts colleges, Knox's endowment pales. Taylor knew these figures in his head: Monmouth is about the same, at $54 million; Lake Forest has $60 million; Beloit about $100 million; Carleton exceeds $500 million and Grinnell has an endowment is excess of $1.3 billion.

It's wealthy alumni who have boosted many of those numbers at the other schools. "We need to instill a strong sense of philanthropy. We haven't done the best job in making alumni understand that the success of the college financially is dependent on them."

A recent challenge facing Taylor and Dean of the College Larry Breitborde is hiring a new Athletic Director. "He and I both agree that if you are going to have an excellent academic program, you need an excellent program in athletics. We need to be more competitive; we need to be more aggressive in recruiting student-athletes; we need to win more games."

Among the improvements and changes planned for the college are several visible ones. "We are going to improve our signage. We are also looking at some serious improvements to the Knox Bowl. Real restrooms are in the works. We're considering installing field turf, a $750,000 artificial surface. That would let us practice there and use the facility for other events, possibly even concerts."

Taylor acknowledges that the pool project is dead for now. "There weren't enough alums interested in the pool and it didn't make a lot of sense to name a swimming facility for [long-time athletic director] Harley Knosher. There should be plenty of people interested in football and renaming the Knox Bowl after Harley."

"We're also looking at making improvements to the track. That would help our curb appeal as well as the athletes."

The perception of Knox in the area is another issue Taylor addresses almost daily. "It never ceases to amaze me how many people in the community think that Knox is a place for rich kids. When I tell them that 70 percent of them get need-based financial aid, they are shocked."

"I'm not sure many in the community understand what a great program the George Washington Gale Scholars program is. To give first-in-the-family college-bound high school students free tuition at both Carl Sandburg College and Knox College is amazing. I'm sure it's unique in the country. Even most of the students who don't end up at Knox are winners. Some get scholarships and go elsewhere; that's great. Others, we're happy that they just stayed in high school which they might not have otherwise."

"Anne and I have worked hard to get out in the community. We've been welcomed with open arms. We are relentless in our press releases. Any time I get a chance to speak to a group or go on the radio, I do. I encourage people on my staff to do so, too."

Roger Taylor isn't ready to talk about the next phase of his career. "I do have a grand plan but I have not started thinking about when I might think about leaving. It's a rare privilege and a great job."