Discourse / Editorials / April 25, 2012

Thoughts from the Embers: Growing the school

During President Teresa Amott’s first year in office, we have come to understand her ideas surrounding the future of Knox College and the main areas on which she plans to focus. In recent months, Amott has revived the discussion held throughout at least the last half-century, either implicitly or explicitly, about growing the size of the student body, currently 1,420.

Given the complex and potentially transformative nature of such planned growth, we, as an editorial board, sat down with Amott on Monday for an interview, in order to dig deeper into the details of the plan. Considering the amount of forethought put into the prospect of growth, it is our opinion that there is no other practical solution for getting the revenue we need to keep the institution financially sustainable.

Our interview with Amott assured us that many of the potential implications and related factors of this plan have been identified and considered during its formulation. And while we approve of the effort, which Amott framed as a continuation of former president Roger Taylor’s push toward “financial impregnability,” we urge that the process remain heavily monitored.

Leaving next year as a planning period, the growth process would not begin until the 2013-2014 academic year, with modest growth of about 15 students. The college would reach growth of about 100 over four years and those additional students would bring in about $2 million in much-needed tuition revenue each year (where $22,000 is the average tuition revenue per student).

“We can’t ask more of everybody who is here,” Amott said. “I can’t squeeze $2 million more out of the existing student body.”

While Amott is also planning a substantial capital campaign to increase the size of the endowment, she said that is not a practical way to increase the operating budget in the short run, and we certainly agree. Since the Board of Trustees plans to keep the endowment spending rate at five percent, an equivalent $2 million revenue increase would require a $40 million increase in the endowment. And that kind of major gift isn’t on the horizon.

Amott had answers for many of the concerns about the physical ability of the existing campus to sustain this kind of growth. In terms of housing the new students, Amott proposes, among other things, abolishing the admissions suites, encouraging participation in study abroad programs, helping upperclassmen find off-campus housing and perhaps even acquiring St. Mary’s Square, across from GDH.

And in response to the concern that growth could change the campus culture by moving some students too far off campus, Amott said Knox would still be one of the four smallest schools in the ACM, and moreover, our conceptions of campus boundaries are rather fleeting. History has seen dramatic changes to our campus (see: the loss of Whiting Hall, observatory), and there is no reason to push against physical change when the character of the institution is at stake.

On the academic side, Amott has explained her commitment to keeping the student-faculty ratio fixed at 12:1, which she said would stimulate “intellectual energy” by adding faculty who specialize in underrepresented subfields. We support this aspect of the growth plan, so long as careful consideration is given when determining where new faculty members are added. Indeed, all departments struggle to cover their entire fields, so we need an institutionalized process through which to determine our academic priorities.

Overall, this is an issue of attracting and retaining high-caliber students. In order to attract those students, we need the facilities and services for which they are looking. But before we can build up that infrastructure, we need the revenue stream first.

“We are losing our competitive position for the kinds of students we want,” Amott said, “and we need to make strategic investments in the institution to regain that position.” Some worry that the growth plan itself will put a strain on admissions standards, but if we cannot maintain and improve the Knox experience, our standards will likely suffer in the long run.

The TKS Editorial board

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