As the bell rang on the top of Old Main for the first time after its renovation in 2001, the tenure of Roger Taylor as Knox College president began.
Taylor’s ascent to the post of the eighteenth president of Knox College came at a rough time for the school, but he was up for the challenge.
Taylor took over as president first on an interim basis in 2001 after Richard Millman suddenly and unexpectedly stepped down from the post.
In the 10 years prior to Taylor’s years as president, the school saw three different presidents, John McCall, Rick Nahm and Millman. This rapid turnover, along with financial issues, made Taylor’s job difficult.
“Everyone was an accountant back then,” Taylor said, “That wasn’t doing us any good.”
The school was in a state of “apprehension,” Taylor believed.
Before being selected as president, Taylor was the chair of the Board of Trustees as well as a retired, but still practicing, lawyer. His work as a lawyer ended once he became president so he could focus on his new job.
While he still maintains an office at Kirkland and Ellis in Chicago, he says he hasn’t “billed a client hour since [becoming president in 2001].”
When the president spot opened up, Taylor and John Podesta, ’71, were the two likely candidates for the job. Taylor, who was chair of the Board of Trustees, met with Podesta for a four-hour meeting in Chicago. At the end of the meeting Podesta informed Taylor he would be unable to take the post due to his work in Washington D.C.
This left Taylor as the clear-cut candidate for the job.
“I wasn’t a real college president,” Taylor said. He came into the post with no academic administrating experience, but the learning curve was quick.
When the Board of Trustees began their search for a permanent president, people encouraged Taylor to apply for the job, including Professor of Classics Brenda Fineberg, who was one of his main supporters.
A key for the removal of his interim title was the fact he was a 1963 alum of Knox. Just mentioning his graduation year was enough to end introductions when talking to other alumni.
As Taylor prepared to be permanent president in October 2002, he came up with three goals to complete during his tenure as president: nurturing academic excellence, strengthening institutional self-confidence and charting a course towards financial impregnability.
These ideas to better Knox didn’t come from another president or a self-help book, but from personal thought.
“I came to realize that strengthening institutional self-confidence was the most important at the time,” said Taylor.
Taylor dealt with these issues by “regulating with more precision,” “insist[ing] people stop ‘yacking’ about financial issues” and “ratchet[ing] up admissions.”
“I asked everyone on senior staff to stay for at least three years,” Taylor said. The school’s troubled situation could have easily been reason for members of the staff to leave, but Taylor was able to convince them otherwise during private meetings with every member of the senior staff.
This worked, with most deans and other senior staff staying well past the minimum three years agreed upon.
Taylor took note of a few things during his first year.
“I was surprised at how important being patient was,” Taylor said. “I’m not really a patient guy, so that was hard.”
Other surprises included the realization of staff resourcefulness with funds and some less-than-luxurious benefits.
“I joke that I don’t even have a driver,” Taylor said.
Taylor was aware of the state of college facilities when he arrived, but he was more focused on admissions and fundraising. Later, improvements to the athletic facilities began, due mainly to a large donation from the Andrew family, after which the fitness center is now named.
The start of his tenure may have come at a poor time for the school, but Taylor has done much in his time to change Knox’s reputation for the better.
This is the first of a series of articles remembering the 18th President of Knox College, Roger Taylor, during his final weeks before retirement.