Paul Eisenmenger joined Knox as its new vice president for finance and administration/chief financial officer in January 2019 after stints as associate vice president of finance at Lewis University and senior vice president for finance and operations at Trinity International University—like Knox, both private liberal arts institutions in Illinois, as is his own alma mater, Judson College (now Judson University).
In your first months at Knox, what did you expect and what has surprised you?
I’ve been in higher education for about 17 years, so I’m pretty familiar with the responsibilities of the job itself.
What has surprised me? Several things: I am fortunate to have a very skilled and dedicated staff. It’s hard to fully appreciate that until you are actually working together day in and day out. Second, I can’t believe that Alumni Hall was once in notable disrepair. What it is today is a tribute to the vision of the institution, its leadership, and the generous support of alumni. Finally, Galesburg has some really good dining establishments. I have my favorites, but many could give anything in the northwest suburbs of Chicago (where I come from) a good run for their money.
What attracted you to Knox College?
I am a product of a small, private, Midwestern liberal arts education, so I am a big believer in the academic program and co-curricular activities we have here at Knox. Knox is a very welcoming community; I sensed it during the interview process, and it has proven itself to be so now that I have been here a few months.
It’s different from other institutions where I’ve worked in that the students here are very engaged with administrative processes. They are both thoughtful and vocal. As an outsider coming in, one tries to identify and assimilate with the institutional culture; I think honestly that the Lincoln-Douglas debate in many ways embedded itself into Knox’s DNA. Many institutions can point to a significant or defining event in its history. But the debate hosted by the College here, outside of Old Main back in 1858, dealt with the dominant moral question of the day. Lincoln gave voice to the moral wrong of slavery and the inherent dignity of each individual. That voice is still very much present today within this campus community.
Knox was founded on the idea that a high-quality liberal arts education should be available to all promising students. Why do you think the cost of a college education has risen so dramatically?
This is a good question and one being asked in many circles today. My observation, and one that is shared by many of my peers in higher education, is that there is not really a short or simple answer. Rather, the increased costs are a net result of multiple factors.
Over the last several decades, access to higher education has increased. To be sure, this accessibility has been a very good thing. That said, prices do tend to rise when there is higher demand. Additionally, as schools compete for students there is a greater emphasis on delivering additional student services and enhanced student amenities. Providing these are notable budget adds for most schools. Finally, budget stresses for many states have reduced capital spending programs which benefited many institutions. As a result, costs have been passed on to students.
I know that the people in the financial aid department at Knox work very hard to try to meet as much student need as possible. Additionally, in my capacity as CFO, I, along with the other members of the senior leadership team, try to steward the resources entrusted to us with as much prudence as possible to help keep a Knox education as affordable as possible.
Where would you say Knox needs the most support? If Knox suddenly had a windfall of, say, $10 million, where would you like to see it go?
Donors have given very generously over the years to the initiatives of the College. This giving has come not only through the Knox Fund, but also via gifts for building projects, scholarships, and faculty development programs. All are wonderful and greatly appreciated.
But to your question, if Knox were to receive a windfall gift of $10 million, I would love to see the funds support our students and their experience at Knox. With the increasing interest in STEM fields, a focus on the renovation of SMC labs and classrooms could improve the experience of many students. More scholarship assistance could lessen the strain on families of sending their children to Knox. And, lastly, modernizations in residential, athletic, and other living-learning spaces on campus could extend learning beyond the classroom.
These are challenging times for small liberal arts colleges. Financially, how does Knox’s situation compare with these schools, and what are the primary challenges you see for Knox going forward?
I think the greatest challenge for Knox (and frankly, higher education in general) is the issue of student affordability. A close second would be how to respond to changing student demographics.
I would note first that Knox has grown its endowment notably over the years. This helps to provide a more stable financial platform. Second, Knox has a very dedicated network of alumni who believe in and support the mission of the school. Third, if you examine the list of skills and abilities that employers are looking for, and compare that list to the outcomes that a liberal arts education provides, there very well could be a renaissance for institutions focused on the liberal arts, and Knox is squarely in that space.