Knowles’ trademark charisma—a witty British sensibility that charmed colleagues and critics to consensus—overlaid leadership as forceful as FAS has known in the last four decades.
Despite the increased influence of central administration under his good friend, former University President Neil L. Rudenstine, Knowles set and executed his popular agenda for FAS by minimizing obstacles in his path and nimbly maneuvering around those that remained.
Most of Knowles’ initiatives were tremendously popular and no fewer than 18 Faculty and administrators said yesterday that had done a stellar job steering the Faculty.
While he effectively delegated responsibility to a select set of loyal Faculty, professors and administrators said yesterday that an heir apparent—or numerous contenders—were conspicuously absent.
“He was not only the administrative head of the faculty, he was their academic and intellectual leader, which would distinguish him from many deans,” said Abbe Professor of Economics Dale W. Jorgenson. “It’s very hard to visualize somebody playing that role as effectively as Dean Knowles.”
“There’s only one dog that barks at Harvard,” Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies Chris Killip said last spring.
The Deft Diplomat
Countless colleagues cite Knowles’ outward charm—“extremely smooth and very much the Oxford don,” in the words of Professor of Chemistry and Physics Eric J. Heller—as a crucial catalyst for advancing his agenda, which ranged from the thankless task of cutting the Faculty’s budget deficit in the early 1990’s to luring prominent scholars to Harvard in his more recent efforts to increase the size of the Faculty.
“He was a person of great eloquence and wit, which makes a difference,” said Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney H. Verba ’53. “It made [FAS] a really classy place.”
“He was instrumental in my recruitment,” remembered Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh Narayanamurti. “I came because of him...God knows, I had not applied to Harvard at all and I agreed to come from sunny California to rainy Boston.”
Knowles’ annual letter to the faculty, have traditionally been peppered with timely allusions to Harvard’s past and learned references, which former Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky said contributed to Knowles’ “great style.”
Discussing press coverage of grade inflation in his final letter, dated this Feb. 1, he recalled a colleague’s comment at Oxford, “One can hardly hear oneself speak for the noise of clean linen being washed in public.”
Winning colleagues over one by one enabled Knowles to grease the wheels of FAS bureaucracy.
Soon after his arrival, he instituted two informal committees, one on financial resources and one on educational policy, that would engineer dramatic changes—including substantial reductions in concentration requirements and doubling the number of freshman seminars—without any technical authority. Knowles’ implicit backing of the committees enabled sizable policy changes to be implemented expeditiously, without bogging down in debate at Faculty meetings.
By engineering such effective unofficial channels, Knowles was able to give the appearance of wide consensus—which often existed—in favor of his agenda without miring time-sensitive initiatives in red tape. While other deans, notably Rosovsky, have been as forceful as Knowles in advocating an agenda, they usually pushed their programs through opposition rather than circumventing it, giving professors who disagreed a higher profile.