No Clear Successor for Charismatic Dean
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.
Knowles also entrusted a great deal of authority to colleagues such as Executive Dean of FAS Nancy L. Maull and former Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Carol J. Thompson—professional administrators with no independent agenda. In the past, similar positions have been held by Faculty members who could subsequently position themselves as candidates for the top job.
When the opportunity for a wink, a smile, and seamless progress did not exist, Knowles was not afraid to cross colleagues who failed to stay on board. Three times in his deanship, he appointed trusted professors in unrelated fields to take over departments he believed were troubled—he deployed Professor of Music Christoph J. Wolff to oversee Linguistics in 1993 and Sanskrit in 1995, and just last year named Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber to take over Visual and Environmental Studies after removing the prior chair, Ellen Phelan, when she refused to resign.
Yet according to Mendelsohn, Knowles was able to minimize the political cost of these interventions by targeting weak departments.
“As these were discussed over coffee or lunch, there was no sense of egregious breaking of bounds and inserting power where it shouldn’t be,” said Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn. “There was the sense that these were difficult problems in small departments with special characteristics. Departments who didn’t get themselves prepared got run over, but if you had close to unanimity in your department and consulted with people who would be affected, you could get a pretty good result [from Knowles].”
Other deans have wielded comparable authority, but few have emerged seeming as irreplaceable. Knowles’ particular leadership style, in which he acted as puppeteer for loyal lieutenants and committees, has achieved the nearly unthinkable in FAS—most professors are too content with Knowles’ achievements to suggest alternative leadership.
“I’ve heard very little gossip about who might follow Jeremy, despite the assumption that after a year or two, he might step down,” said Mendelsohn. “When you’re unhappy, you think who’s going to set things in a different way.”
“His deputies weren’t grooming themselves to succeed him,” Heller said.
Knowles certainly owes this success in part to the “heady” financial climate during the second half of his tenure. The recent economic downturn only makes his departure more convenient.
The most dramatic change in FAS this fall, of course, has been the increased involvement of University President Lawrence H. Summers in FAS affairs, ranging from one-on-one critiques of professors to large priorities like tenuring Faculty earlier in their careers, augmenting opportunities for undergraduate study abroad and combating grade inflation.
According to Knowles, Summers, and internal observers, the Dean and the President were in agreement on many of these issues and pursued them jointly, but the presidential attention to FAS in particular represented an overwhelming change from the Rudenstine era—which, for all intents and purposes, was the Knowles era for FAS.
And it is Summers who will be faced with the daunting challenge of selecting a successor to Knowles from within FAS. While professors and administrators said few names leapt to mind as obvious candidates, many suggested that the new dean would have to follow suit with Summers’ strong engagement with FAS and preconceived plans for the faculty.
With a more involved President, Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris suggested, “the next Dean may have less leeway and less power.”
According to Heller, the effective collaboration between Knowles and Summers is not likely to stop the President from selecting “someone rougher around the edges—imaginative, bold, more like Summers himself.”
Given Summers’ focus on tenuring professors earlier, Jorgenson suggested the next dean might still have “most of their career ahead of them.”
Finally, Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. said he was confident in the President and Provost’s commitment to “the concept of diversity in academic programs” in selecting a dean, and added that if a candidate did not sufficiently reflect that commitment, “my colleagues and I will be there reminding them.”
— David H. Gellis, Kate L. Rakoczy and Elizabeth S. Theodore contributed to the reporting of this article.
— Dan Rosenheck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.