Her Way to Knox
For Teresa Amott, the way to Knox began long before February 14, 2011, the day that her election as 19th president of the College was announced. Her path to Knox can be traced back to a childhood spent abroad and an educational and professional career that she fondly calls "one big college tour."
The daughter of an American Foreign Service Officer and a Brazilian mother, Amott lived in five different countries before returning stateside in junior high. Her childhood abroad taught her to adapt to new situations and instilled in her a life-long appreciation for languages and cultures, as well as a commitment to global citizenship. Amott's father is a Midwesterner: he was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, and lived in Elgin, Illinois, when he was young, returning to Kansas for his high school years. Amott's mother grew up in Rio de Janeiro and worked in the U.S. Embassy, where she met her future husband.
Amott attended Smith College, where she discovered economics and also learned that many of the greatest lessons we learn in college are taught outside of the classroom. After Smith, the majority of her academic career has been on liberal arts campuses, places she describes as "national treasures," unique in global higher education.
Gettysburg College, where she served as vice provost from 2000 to 2005, is perhaps the only other school in the nation with a claim to Lincoln as strong as Knox's. It is also one of the institutions that granted Knox Professor Emeritus Douglas Wilson the Lincoln Prize -- the premier prize for scholarship on America's 16th president -- twice. While working there, Amott lived "in the shadow of Little Round Top" and drove through the battlefield every day on her way to work, an experience she describes as "powerful and sobering."
Immediately prior to Knox, Amott served as provost and dean of Hobart & William Smith Colleges (HWS), less than a two-hour drive from Whitesboro, New York, where Knox's founder, George Washington Gale, began his journey to the Illinois prairie. HWS was also the alma mater of beloved late Knox English professor William Brady, who taught at Knox for more than 30 years, and the institution that sent a previous provost to an Illinois college presidency: Minor Myers, 17th president of Illinois Wesleyan University.
These and more connections to Knox have surfaced throughout the months prior to her assumption of the presidency on July 1, and, as she reflects on her journey, Amott isn't surprised that her career brought her to Knox. "There are very few degrees of separation between my life before Knox and the life I hope to live at Knox," she says.
How did your childhood abroad inform your professional life?
I was a Foreign Service brat. Like military families, we would receive our orders, and we'd be off to a new place, a new adventure -- from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to Boston, Massachusetts, then on to Mexico City, and then to Lisbon. You just never knew where you were going to go next. So I learned early on to connect to a new community as quickly as I could because we'd shortly be getting the next orders to move again. A peripatetic life gives you a deep appreciation for the infinite variety of human experience and helps you develop empathy toward ot hers. As a faculty member and academic administrator, I have been committed to the work of developing opportunities for students to have the same educational experiences that I was so privileged to absorb by osmosis. I never studied abroad as a student, but I lived abroad as a child, and I'm very dedicated to ensuring that Knox students have similar experiences.
Why did you choose to study economics?
It's a simple reason, really -- growing up abroad, I came to understand the privilege of being a citizen of the richest country in the world, but when I arrived in the United States, I learned that there was inequality here, too. I entered college in the late 1960s, and I wanted to understand the economic origins of the Civil Rights movement. I studied poverty and social inequality and that led me to women and racial-ethnic minorities in the workforce.
Why did you make the switch from academia to administration?
Mine was a very traditiona l route. I was elected to faculty committees -- curriculum committee, tenure and promotion committee, and so on -- and pretty soon people elected me to more faculty committees. The more committees I joined, the more I came to appreciate all the different pieces of an institution. As that appreciation accumulated, I became fascinated by what makes these places tick. Over time, I developed a desire to wind the clock, so to speak.
How does being an economist inform your administrative work?
Being an economist has certainly helped prepare me. As an administrator and a leader, you are always making choices and allocating scarce resources across competing ends. You have to find a way to take into account all the ma ny potential consequences (we call them opportunity costs) of a decision and to target resources strategically, for the maximum institutional impact. Training as an economist gives you a kind of comfort with that idea -- that there's always scarcity, and that the choices you have to make, the trade-offs that you have to face, need to be approached thoughtfully. The problem with a college environment is that there are so many good ideas that you just can't pursue them all.
What do you find makes Knox "Knox"?
I certainly haven't been on campus long enough to answer that question as well as I want to, but there was a moment during the presidential search process in which I knew that I wanted to become part of this very special community. I interviewed on campus the day that the February 2011 blizzard was approaching, and when I got back to Geneva, I went online to see how Knox fared during the storm. I found a letter to President Taylor on The Knox Student website from 500 students thanking the staff members that worked during the storm. And that really touched me.
In what way?
It reminded me of a woman who worked at Smith, where I went to college. Her name was Gail, and she worked in the dining hall of my house. On bitterly cold winter mornings, she'd bring in apples from her orchard and make hot apple sauce for us. She said she was doing it for "her girls." I had wonderful faculty members at Smith and am still in touch with some of them, but I also remember vividly how much Gail made me feel cared for. When I saw the letter from the Knox students, I remembered Gail, and that was a turning point for me. It was the moment in which I thought this is a community to which I want to belong.
How does Geneva compare to Galesburg?
Galesburg is a big city in comparison! Geneva is a small city of 17,000 people. Like Galesburg, it's surround ed by very productive agricultural areas, and it's also recovering from the loss of a major manufacturer -- instead of Maytag, it was American Can decades ago. The places I've lived are similar to Galesburg and Western Illinois in so many ways. Cities in Western New York near Geneva -- Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo -- these are "big shouldered" cities with really rich ethnic mixes and proud histories, much like Chicago.
HWS worked closely with Geneva on a program called the Geneva Partnership. Can you talk about this program?
The Geneva Partnership is a reciprocal partnership between HWS and the Geneva community, recognizing what the college and the community could both do for one another and looking creatively at those opportunities. Geneva has been a gracious host to HWS since 1822, so the partnership is built on that relationship. HWS students participate in community service and community-based research, and HWS employees serve on boards in the community. We tell students when they arrive that they will spend four years -- 1/5 of their lives up to that point -- in Geneva, and they should consider it their home and contribute to it as they would the places they came from.
Are you interested in pursuing anything like this in Galesburg?
There's already a partnership in place between Knox and Galesburg that's been there since their joint founding. I would hope to see this partnership expanded through the academic program in community-based research projects such as the Maytag Project and the journalism program. I was very impressed by the Galesburg community members I met during the presidential search and their regard for Knox, and, similarly, members of the Knox community and their regard for Galesburg. It's clear that this interconnection is very powerful and historic. Knox and Galesburg depend upon one another and can thrive together.
How have you prepared for your new role as Knox's president?
Well, I graduated from college in 1972, and, since then, I've spent nearly 40 years in higher education! I have been reading books by and about college presidents, and wonderful books about the history of Knox and Galesburg that were graciously sent to me by Roger Taylor when I accepted the position. I also joined discussions at Knox about the budget, admissions, fundraising, and communications -- areas that are integral to the well-being and success of the College -- before I arrived on campus. And with the 175th anniversary of Knox and Galesburg's founding upon us, I've spent a good deal of time working on preparations for the celebration. I want it to be memorable for students, an opportunity for alumni to reconnect to the College, and an occasion for giving back to Galesburg and to Knox.
What do you honestly believe Knox's founder s would have thought about a woman leading the College?
I'm not sure. I suspect, though, that they would consider it unthinkable, improper, and mildly scandalous!
What are your goals for your first year at Knox?
Listen carefully and work hard.
Birthplace: La Paz, Bolivia
Education: B.A., Smith College, economics; Ph.D. Boston College, economics
Family: husband, deceased; three grown step-children with children of their own; fiancé Major Ray Miller, U.S. Army (retired); dog, Spencer; cat, Frosty
Languages spoken: Well, one (English). Not so well, three (French, Spanish, Portuguese).
Favorite childhood memory: My pony named Pegasus in Honduras. I thought he could fly.
Ideal weekend: At a cabin in the woods in front of a fireplace, curled up with my Kindle, reading either a murder mystery or an American history book and spending time with our pets.
If not a college president: I'd be a lawyer like Roger and Anne Taylor. I would have loved to have been an attorney, perhaps in public service.