Discourse / Editorials / April 15, 2010

Thoughts from the Embers: Presidential yearnings

Last week, the Knox community was informed that Roger Taylor, the President of Knox College for the past decade, will be retiring from his position by June 2011. While this news has been met with a whole range of reactions, from shock to sadness to joy, Taylor has made some great strides since he became Knox’s president. He has also left projects undone.

While the timing of this announcement (on the heels of the Dean of Students’ leave of absence) makes it a little more than jolting, we must also consider Taylor’s timeline. He has been president for nearly a decade, which is twice as long as the average college president’s term, according to Google news. Taylor served Knox for many years and created some significant and appreciated changes in the college’s affairs over that time.

As the school begins the process of hiring another president, TKS wonders which sort of skills will be valued in a candidate. How might our current president stack up against the future candidates for this position? And finally, how can we define Taylor’s time at Knox in terms of successes and failures?

First, we must consider the college that Taylor inherited. When he became the interim president in 2001, the school was facing a financial disaster. Being far in debt surely prompted the hiring committee to consider financial-mindedness a strength in the future president. There is no doubt that Taylor, Tom Axtell and other administrators have been able to create some serious cash flow within the institution.

One of Taylor’s favorite catch phrases (along with “freedom to flourish”) is creating “financial impregnability.” This means creating an environment where Knox, as an institution, can be financially sound. Though the economy over the past few years has made this difficult, the college’s financial situation has maintained control.

For example, there haven’t been serious faculty cuts or wage reductions as a result of the recession (or none that we’ve been aware of, anyway). Existing scholarships for students haven’t disappeared and the college continues to provide financial support for student and faculty research. Many other institutions have struggled with funding faculty and student development, but Knox remains financially strong, despite the odds.

That said, there are obvious examples of projects on campus unfinished because of funding. The running joke on campus is that every prospective student hears that Alumni Hall is waiting on funding and will most likely be renovated by the time the prospective graduates. Yet, five years later, the building remains empty. Progress on Alumni Hall seems to have stalled indefinitely, as the administration says, largely due to lack of funding.

Beyond the college’s financial state, Taylor has also seen an increase in the student population since he became president. While in the past, the campus has functioned at a comfortable 70 percent capacity, over the past four years enrollment has been pushed to the brink of overcrowding.

Prospective students are enticed by Knox’s status as one of the colleges that changes lives, the impressive commencement speakers over the past five years and the supportive network Knox offers its graduates. While several members of the Knox community have been a part of creating this kind of atmosphere, Taylor has played a large part in selling the school and making it competitive with other institutions of higher learning.

Once here, however, students have often taken issue with the execution of politics at Knox. Demands regarding sexual assault by student organizations aren’t always considered or met by the administration, as Taylor told a group of students last week. Last fall, he also overstepped the usual chain of decision-making at Knox by deciding there would be security cameras on campus without addressing the students regarding their opinions on this sometimes controversial issue. But, as president, Taylor’s actions were well within his right.

If we want a school run like a business, which we did nine years ago when Taylor was hired, then choosing a president with financial and marketing skills is important. During his time at Knox, Taylor definitely filled that role and succeeded in several important endeavors.

However, if we want a president who is more student-life oriented as president of Knox, we’ll need to consider hiring a candidate who will focus on student issues. While Taylor has talked to students about their needs and wants in both formal and informal settings, the relationship between some students and the administration continues to be strained.

What do we need right now in a president? Do we want our school to be run like a business or a home? How can the two be reconciled in order to create the best environment for future Knox students, faculty and staff?

These are all questions we must seriously consider during the coming months as Taylor ends his term and the college searches for somebody to fill his space.

TKS Staff


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