This is the first part of a series on college finances. “The financial tightrope: Knox’s search for stability” will run through the end of winter term and consider multiple angles of the college’s financial woes. To share your ideas about this project, email us at email@example.com or send a tweet to
Knox officials are in the midst of a delicate process. Tuition is growing, budgets are shrinking and campus facilities are out of date. But the question remains: Will the college’s financial uncertainty impact the student experience?
President Teresa Amott announced plans last month to deliver a budget surplus by 2016. But until then, the Knox community will “feel some pain,” she said.
Junior Carmen Caraballo wonders how Knox can justify tuition increases — 6.6 percent next year — without first making improvements to residential life.
Caraballo, a current Williston Hall resident, recalls being mostly dissatisfied when she lived in Sellew Hall.
“The Quads in general just sucked,” she said. “It was so gross. There were points where there was [mildew] on the communal showers. It was disgusting.”
For her, the bigger issue was the unpredictability of the Knox washers and dryers. She has considered doing laundry off-campus.
“Some of [the dryers] work and some of them don’t,” she said.
Freshman Derinn Wallace, a Post Hall resident, also expressed displeasure with the
laundry facilities. The dryers leave her clothes damp and she sometimes has to wash them twice, she said.
Wallace said most campus-issued furniture is out of date, but functional. And the majority of Knox housing lacks amenities, such as air conditioning, which she saw while visiting other campuses.
Still, she does not believe that students lack anything vital.
The issue, instead, is that “tuition keeps rising, but we’re not getting anything for it. [Residents of] the Quads definitely aren’t getting their money’s worth,” she said.
Next year will rank among Knox’s biggest tuition hikes in the past 15 years: 2001 (6.8 percent), 2002 (6.9 percent) and 2007 (6.7 percent).
Professor of Physics and College Registrar Charles Schulz ‘72 believes the student experience extends beyond just residential life to include athletics, clubs and other activities.
“Knox wants to keep its flavor and be economically and ethically sound — it’s what made me want to work here,” he said.
A Knox professor since 1981, he also believes the college is headed down the right path.
“Between [Treasurer Tom Axtell] and [Amott], they both know what needs to be done. It’s not going to be quick or painless, but the plan’s in place,” he said.
Knox officials last month proposed cutting retirement benefits for staff and faculty through 2014 and increasing enrollment by 240 students by 2016. The college must also cut $1.2 million before June 30 to balance the current budget.
“There’s no reason for concern in the physics department,” Schulz said.
He said despite budget constraints, Knox physics students are consistently performing well on the national scale. The key is “doing more with less,” he said.
For Professor of Biology Stuart Allison, the student experience is not always quantifiable.
“The close relationships between students and professors, for example, that’s not going to change [with budget cuts],” he said.
Allison said the biggest consequence of budget cuts is an inability to update lab equipment. Besides that, he does not think the “student experience will change much.”
In the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center, the most recently built academic building — and yet also often cited as the most outdated — classrooms are not designed for a “21st century interactive student experience,” according to Schulz.
“The lecture pits are just terrible. The lighting is terrible, the acoustics are terrible. But that’s what makes the [$50 million] renovation plan so exciting — you could do things over time,” he said.
Re-purposing Aux Gym
Associate Professor of Dance Jennifer Smith sees a lot of potential in the Auxiliary Gym.
“We have found a way to work within what we have,” she said, but ideally it would have two different classroom spaces.
“It would need a big chunk of change pumped into it to make it what we really need,” she said.
The Auxiliary Gym was originally built to be a women’s gymnasium. Restrooms in the basement were part of the female coaches’ restrooms and offices in the locker room area.
Now, the Auxiliary Gym basement is used by the art department for studio spaces.
“What I really love … is that the art department has started to use the basement as an open studio space because like dance, visual art, everyone’s sort of bursting at the seams,” Smith said. “I love the fact that we have this multipurpose art center, but in my opinion … neither space, while we’re making it work, is not really ideal for either one of us.”
Smith is concerned by the amount of unused space in the Aux. The main dance space is divided in two, but half is largely unused because without a dividing wall, there is no way to conduct two rehearsals with music at once.
“What we really need is a box within a box. You take the dance space here and literally rehab it so that we have a box within here to separate it into two different spaces,” she said, diagramming the idea with a pen and paper.
Other needed improvements, according to Smith, include multiple exits, rewiring, better bathroom facilities and fixing the leaking ceiling. Smith also cited occupancy concerns.
“The space we’re in now,” she said, referring to the small office above what is now the dance space, “is where I used to teach dance history classes. We had a board up on the wall and you can still see where it was. This TV and whatnot was where we had videos. We could fit everyone when there were seven or eight students in the course.”
Now typical dance courses fill up at 25, and the program often has to offer multiple sections of some introductory-level courses.
The maximum occupancy of the building at 50 persons is due to the fact that there is only one emergency exit in the building. Recent caps on casting for Terpsichore Dance Collective performances, as well as academic performances, are linked to this occupancy issue as well as a similar maximum occupancy in Harbach Theatre’s backstage areas.
However, Smith says that capping participants for dance shows is not a hindrance but a help.
She went on to explain that even on larger campuses, such as the University of Illinois with hundreds of dance majors and minors, a performance will typically not exceed beyond 15 to 30 performers in a show.
Sophomore Juan Irizarry uses the Auxiliary Gym about three times per week this term.
“But last term, I lived there,” he said.
Irizarry has mixed feelings about the quality of the Aux.
“Coming from being a trained dancer in the Joffrey [Ballet School] … it’s kind of designed to be a ballet studio. With the Aux, we make do with what we have,” he said. “I came from a studio with wall-to-wall barres and mirrors.”
Although he feels like the space could appear more professional, by the same token, Irizarry enjoys the “stressless environment” the Aux eminates and likes that it feels like a class space as well as a dance space.
Other complaints of his include temperature regulation during cold and warm months. The older heating system and lack of air conditioning in the building affect the marley floor as well as the quality of rehearsals when dancers are either too cold or too hot.
“During the spring, there’s pollen everywhere and little red bugs everywhere,” Irizarry said, in reference to holes in the building’s ceiling and doors and windows without proper weather seals.
Like Smith, Irizarry wishes the dance space could be divided in two with two sound systems so multiple professors or choreographers could work at the same time. Without a second space, many students must hold rehearsals in the Mirror Room in the Fitness Center or hallways in the Ford Center for the Fine Arts.
“You use the space as much as you can … at least now we have a great marley floor while the old one we had before was God-awful. Upstairs is also not being utilized as it could be,” he said. “The Aux is currently a big waste of space.”
Despite the strain on the college’s finances, Director of Financial Aid Ann Brill said financial aid awards will remain similar to years past.
“For every family, finances are a concern. Regardless of where you’re at on the income spectrum, most of our students receive financial aid to some degree, and they will continue to,” she said.
According to Director of Admissions Paul Steenis, Knox will broaden its recruiting, with an emphasis on California, Texas and the east coast.
Between transfers and high school seniors, Knox admitted 1,786 students last year. Of those, 424 enrolled.
A key to increasing enrollment is making sure current students remain.
In fall 2012, 44 students left Knox, 17 due to academic reasons. In 2011, 49 students left, 21 due to academic reasons. And in fall 2010, 51 students left — just six due to academic reasons.
Another key is understanding why students choose to go elsewhere. Each year, Knox sends an online survey to admitted students for insight on how they picked their college, Steenis said.
“It comes down to match and fit. Do you envision yourself here? Students who choose to go elsewhere couldn’t see themselves here. It’s a very personal thing,” he said.
Junior Phil Bennett knows people who felt tricked into coming to Knox — “shafted” even.
“They’re upset they’re not experiencing the same things as their friends at bigger colleges. They’re expecting things that Knox can’t offer,” he said
Still, Bennett thinks the student experience is self-determined.
“It is what you make of it,” he said. “Knox has a casual environment where you can discuss really important topics. And for me, that comfort’s been meaningful.”