President Roger Taylor’s Speech: “Observations from Ten Years on South Street” June 16, 2011
Thank you for that generous introduction Karrie, and thanks to Rotary for letting me stand up before you this one last time while I still work at Knox College.
Joel asked me for a title for my remarks today and I chose “Observations from Ten Years on South Street.”
2 East South Street is Knox’s address, Knox is where I spent the last 10 years. And thinking about what to say today gave me a chance to reflect some on my time at Knox.
Let me start by publicly announcing — for the first time — what the title of my book is going to be. I’m going to call it Excellence in Leadership Through Inadvertence! Now I think you’ll agree that’s a catchy title, bound to sell, and there is truth in it.
For starters, I was an inadvertent president of Knox. The prior Knox president left without much notice in the summer of 2001 and the Board was scurrying around to find an interim president.
I was in the process of winding down my law practice in Chicago, Anne and I were moving to our farm in Fulton County, so some trustees said, “Roger — why don’t you be the interim president?”
There was another Knox graduate, trustee, who was also unemployed, John Podesta. Several trustees — including me — said, “Let’s get John to act as interim president.”
I called John from my Chicago office and told him I wanted to fly out to Washington and talk with him about being the interim president.
John said, “No. If we’re going to talk about that I’ll come to Chicago.”
I hung up and said, “Hot dog! Nobody flies from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, Illinois to say, ‘no’”.
Big Meeting in Chicago
John and I had a meeting in Chicago; a couple of folks came up from campus. We talked for four hours.
John finally said that he couldn’t leave Washington but if I would be the interim president he would agree to be special counsel — or some title — so we could take advantage of his name, get some headlines.
It worked. The headline in the Register-Mail was “White House Chief of Staff and alumnus to lead Knox.” John went back to Washington, I never heard from him again! That’s not true, John has been very helpful to the College, and to me, opening some doors in Washington and helping with some Commencement speakers.
But the inadvertence continued. The second smartest thing I did during my 10 years at Knox — was inadvertent; moving my office to a little room right off the hall of Old Main.
My interim term officially started September 1, 2001, but I started working in July. My predecessor’s office was still set up in the grand, southeast corner of Old Main.
So I set up shop in an ante room on the hall, the room with the window where Abraham Lincoln went through college! That worked just fine, I kept my door open. Pretty soon students and others started to say that I had an open door policy, which they loved.
And I was able to step out into the hall and greet unsuspecting visitors, especially visiting prospective students and their parents and do a little retail sales.
Inadvertent Eating in Cafeteria
The office move was the second smartest inadvertence, the smartest was eating in the cafeteria with the students.
First day of classes, September 6, 2001, It was lunch time, I said to Anne, “Let’s go over to the cafeteria for lunch.”
We came off the line with our trays. You could see the students looking down. “Please God, don’t let them sit with me.”
But they got a charge out of our eating with them. No president had eaten with the students in memory, maybe never. It gave the students a boost of school spirit that translated over to faculty and staff I’m convinced.
Some Decisions Were Intentional
So the smartest things I did were inadvertent, but reflecting back, some things were intentional. Fixing the Old Main bell was the most important intentional thing I did. The Old Main bell had rung to call students to class and dismiss them since 1858.
For reasons never clear, and I couldn’t get a straight answer, they stopped ringing the bell in the mid 80s. Then in the fall of 2001 two students pointed out to me that a couple of supports on the Old Main bell tower looked like they were rotting, turned out all of the supports were rotting and we had to replace the bell tower.
I said, “By golly we are going to fix the bell while we’re at it!”
Easy Money for the Bell
The whole project cost $50,000. It was the easiest $50,000 I have ever raised. During a trustee executive committee meeting I said that we were going to replace the bell tower and fix the bell, we needed $50,000.
Trustee Bud Potter, Class of ’63 from Havana said, “I’ll do $10,000. Trustee Chuck Smith from Chicago said, “I’ll do 10.” Three other trustees piped up. We raised the $50,000 in less than a minute.
We dedicated the new bell tower and rang the Old Main bell in a ceremony on February 14, 2002. Ringing the bell again was a sign of renewed institutional self confidence in the future of Knox, and that was the beginning of the second of my three goals for Knox: Strengthening Institutional Self-Confidence.
Two days later, on February 16, 2002, the Board elected me the real president.
My three goals also were intentional: Nurture Academic Excellence, Strengthen Institutional Self-Confidence, And Chart a Course Toward Financial Impregnability.
And I intentionally repeated them every time I got a chance. Repeated them so often — that folks on campus, and many alumni, know them by heart whether they wanted to or not.
And Strengthening Institutional Self-Confidence has been the most import of the three goals.
Knox Has Accentuated the Positive.
Institutional Self-Confidence gave us the motivation and confidence to accentuate the positive.
We don’t have gleaming new buildings — like many other colleges, but we have a great faculty and a rigorous academic program, an academic program that appeals to bright and curious students from all over the country and world: 45% from Illinois, 57% from other states, 8% from other countries.
And the academic program is what we have accentuated, the faculty, the educational program, and that is why enrollment has grown from 1,050 students in 2001, to 1,400. Right now, against our target of 375 new students for this fall, we have 401 deposits.
Institutional Self-Confidence gave us confidence to ask donors for money for new endowed chairs to address faculty salaries, and motivated donors to give. People love to give money to a winner.
Since 2007 we have added eight new endowed chairs with individual endowments of from $1 million to $2 million. Total $10.4 million; the earnings from the endowments support the salaries of the professors who are named to the chairs
The new chairs, other gifts for the endowment, have enabled us to increase the endowment from $43 million in 2001, to $84 million as of March 30…still too small but the highest in the College’s history.
Institutional Self-Confidence gave us confidence to ask for money for new facilities: the new athletic facilities, the new Turner track, new Andrew Fitness Center, new Prats Soccer Field, new Knosher Bowl, Borzello Hall — a new academic building on the corner of South and Cherry, and a $6 million renovation of Hamblin Hall — the dormitory on South Street.
Knox Is Good for Galesburg
And if I may observe what I have just described happening at Knox has been good for Galesburg, the construction and renovation — $25 million since 2000.
We got most of that in Galesburg, 80% we figure. The progress at Knox is good for Galesburg in other ways. Knox employs 342 faculty and staff, annual payroll of $18 million, student payroll of $1.3 million, an annual goods and services budget of $15 million.
Knox Accentuated the Positive About Galesburg.
At Knox we have also accentuated the positive about Galesburg.
No one will be surprised or annoyed I hope, if I say that parts of Galesburg don’t show well to prospective students and their families.
Knox Showed Seminary Street.
But rather than wringing our hands about what in Galesburg doesn’t show well, at Knox we have accentuated the positive about Galesburg.
One part of Galesburg that does show very well is Seminary Street, created by Knox alum Jay Matson ‘65, and we accentuate Seminary Street.
I tell prospective students and their parents that I lived in Chicago for 30 years, so I know from experience that at the Seminary Street restaurants you can get Chicago food at Peoria prices.
Galesburg Needs to Accentuate the Positive.
I say all this not just to brag about Knox. I say it because I believe those of us in Galesburg need to work even harder to accentuate the positives of Galesburg, and Strengthen Civic Self Confidence, just as Knox has Strengthened Institutional Self-Confidence.
And I am taking this message to you, because the members of the Rotary are critical, civic leaders in this community. And I know that if you agree with me, you can lead that effort to Strengthen Civic Self-Confidence and persuade more folks to join in.
Brag About District 205
There is plenty about Galesburg to accentuate. One thing we can all brag about is the public schools in Galesburg there are issues and challenges but the teachers and administrators do a great job.
I have been in classrooms; I have worked with Gene Denisar and others on the Gale Scholars Program. I think most folks in Galesburg recognize that District 205 does a great job, and how important our schools are. That’s why the voters approved the penny tax for the Master Facilities Plan last November.
District 205 Helps Knox.
Bragging about District 205 gives me a segue into acknowledging how important Galesburg is to Knox, starting with District 205, Gale Scholars — of course.
But District 205 also provides opportunities for Knox teacher education majors to do student teaching.
Teacher education is one of the largest majors at Knox, number 2 right now. Of the 289 Knox graduates at Commencement a couple weeks ago, 40 were teacher education majors.
And thanks to Joel, and the cooperating teachers at 205, about 30 to 40 Knox students do their practice teaching at 205 schools.
Galesburg Is Knox — Knox is Galesburg
I could go on and on with examples of Galesburg being good for Knox, and how Knox is Galesburg, and Galesburg is Knox.
The number of Knox employees and alumni who are members of Noon Rotary and Sunrise Rotary would be one example.
Knox Is Too Liberal
Now let me spend just one minute on an observation from South Street that may seem a little disagreeable.
I have heard reports about some folks in Galesburg grumbling that Knox is “too liberal,” an occasional letter to the editor to that effect, even a column in the Register-Mail awhile back referring to “left wing” Knox students.
When I hear about those grumblings I scratch my head and wonder if the grumblers have ever spent any time with any of our students.
No One Sends The Students Back
Because a couple of years ago when Knox student Sarah Kurian ‘10, from Elburn, organized a group of Knox students to spend time with the residents of the Mary Allen West Towers and organize activities for them. We didn’t get any complaints that Sarah or any of the students were “too liberal.”
And when Knox student Anita Ahuja ‘11 from Rock Island organized a Knox student chapter of “Best Buddies” to spend quality time with the residents of St. Mary’s Square we didn’t get any complaints that Anita or the other Knox students were “too liberal.”
In January, when Knox students donated 1,532 meals to the LunchSpot program for District 205 students during the extended winter break, we didn’t get any “too liberal” complaints.
Temper Our Gripes
No doubt plenty of the Knox students are more liberal than I am, and sometimes say things they shouldn’t. But it still addles me when I hear the “too liberal” gripes, and I wish that folks would temper their gripes with the recognition that when we put our hands over our hearts, and pledge allegiance to the flag, and say “liberty and justice for all,” that means liberty to hold views different from ours and not be disparaged as too anything.
The truth is we have all sorts of students as Knox, which is as it should be, to help students learn from each other.
Roger Will Miss the Students
Final observation from South Street. You can probably tell from what I just said that I am going to miss the students, I will miss pretty much everything about the job and the role it has given me in Galesburg.
There will be a few things I won’t miss, but rather than mention them now I’ll save them for the book.
But one thing that I will really miss a lot is the students, meeting many of them as high school students trying to pick a college, welcoming them to campus and then watching them grow and mature, and go off to be productive citizens, Teachers — business people — doctors.
That I will miss the students was brought home to me a couple of months ago when I was talking with Hannah.
I first met Hanah on March 8, 2009 when Anne and I attended an admissions reception at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield.
“Hannah,” not her real name, was socially awkward, shy, didn’t talk. Hannah’s mother took me aside. “Maybe she could be a librarian.” Her mother’s face betrayed a plea, “Please take this child.”
I walked out of the Sunset Ridge Country Club that day feeling sad about Hannah’s plight but I consoled myself that was someone else’s problem, I’d never see Hannah again.
Admitted Students Day
Fast forward to April 16, 2009, Admitted Students Day, I walked into the Lincoln Room for lunch, and there — big as life, with a grin ear to ear, sat Hannah.
“Where’s your mom.”
“Oh — she’s at home,” Hannah said.
“How’d you get here?”
“I took the train.”
Hannah had gotten here from the North Shore by herself. If Knox College never did another thing it had started to change Hannah’s life by contributing to her confidence to visit campus by herself.
Saturday, September 5, 2009 Hannah moved in as a new student. I have gone out of my way to stop to chat with her when I see her, she’s ordinarily by herself, still shy, has a little difficulty chatting but she always smiles.
It crossed my mind that Hannah’s social skills are consistent with what I have read about Asperger’s Syndrome, but I don’t know.
I have checked her transcript a time or two, she’s doing fine.
Last year when I refused to recommend a faculty member for tenure I got lots of letters from students objecting.
Hannah sent one, hers was the most well reasoned and thoughtful letter of protest I received.
I don’t know if Hannah will end up being a librarian, but I know that she will be something, and I know that she will be someone.
Because of the financial generosity to Knox of many people, including many of you, Hannah is going to be a good citizen and productive member of our society.
I’ll Miss You
I ran into Hannah about a month ago on the first floor of Old Main, asked her how it was going. With a bit of shyness, she said, “Fine.”
She started to go to class, then she stopped, looked me straight in the eye, and said firmly, “I’m going to miss you.”
I’d be surprised if I ever forget that moment.
Thanks for letting me share my observations from ten years on South Street.