January 16, 2011 – Dear Knox College

Dear Knox College,

You present quite a quandary! I was intrigued because you were one of 40 colleges nationwide recommended in  “Colleges that Change Lives” – an intriguing book that attempted to rank colleges not on how hard it was to gain admittance, but how a college’s graduates were situated years after graduation – probably a much better measure of the success of a college. Your marketing and promotion materials were effective.

Your location offers a nice Midwestern pedigree as well – you’re celebrating your 175th anniversary this year. You’re located in a town mired in history – home of Carl Sandburg, along with world-famous brickyard, used to pave 60 miles of your town’s streets, along with streets in Paris, Bombay, and Panama City.

galesburg brick

Your college has a long history of action. You were a stop on the underground railroad. It was home to the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

girl in lincoln chair, knox college

You let students on tour sit in a chair used by Mr. Lincoln.  Those are all things that seem to support your current mission.

Your Martin Luther King Day convocation was a wonderful event, complete with singing, words about the inspiration of Dr. King (and hey, thanks for the shout out to Theodore Parker, Unitarian Minister and inspiration for much of Dr. King’s thought), and words putting him in a contemporary context. I agree to think of it as a “day on” not a “day off.”

From all appearances there is a real esprit de corps among your students.  The classes my daughter attended showed the quality of your faculty.  So after all this, why am I torn in my impressions?

I was surprised at the amount of deferred maintenance that needs to be completed. I was surprised that the previous week’s snow had not been cleared from all the sidewalks; in fact from the compressed snow on the road in front of the admission office, it looked like the road was not plowed in a timely manner after the snowfall.  The strip maple flooring in the choir/band room the parents met for financial aid needed repair from termite damage. The list is no doubt very long.

I didn’t learn anything about the food service or cafeteria as the tour never went through there – we did have a lunch, but it was presented in a banquet buffet style, not of the style the students would get.  I get why, school was in session and the cafeteria probably can’t handle the excess.  But one look at the salad tells me that Bon Appetit is not your food service provider.  Hint: many of your peer institutions use them and the food is great.

I didn’t catch some of the tour – the guide didn’t have the traditional walk backwards and talk at the people taking the tour stance down. Instead she walked forward and talked, making it difficult to hear.

Unlike many of your peers, I saw virtually no signs of sustainabilty efforts – only a recycling program.  I didn’t see any LEED certified buildings, I didn’t see any college-owned solar panels or utility-sized wind turbines, or locally grown food (see Bon Appetit).  I did notice that the cost of attendance was about the same as peer institutions that did have these facilities and more.

So, here’s the corundum – can you fall madly in love with someone who keeps a messy house?  Eventually you probably can, but you take the risk of someone not hanging around long enough to find out.  I appreciated the words of your new President.  Perhaps the fresh eyes she has will lead you on a renaissance.  I had a good feeling about her. Knox seems like a grand old house that has fallen out of disrepair, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envision it remodeled into all it could be.  I don’t think my daughter will be attending, but perhaps in five years when my son is ready for his college search, the renovation will be well underway and it will be worth another look.

p.s. The Dean of Admissions was kind enough to respond to this post.  Read his comments as well.