Jeremy R. Knowles

One of the grandest figures in recent Harvard history, the beloved British dean returned stability to a fractured university, while leading colleagues with charm, warmth, and erudition

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Jeremy R. Knowles, the former Royal Air Force officer who left England to join Harvard’s Chemistry department in 1974 and quickly became a pillar of the University, leading the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for nearly 12 years, died yesterday after a prolonged struggle with prostate cancer. He was 72.

He died at his home in Cambridge, the University announced in a statement late last night.

One of the most prominent figures at Harvard in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, though he often evoked an earlier age, Knowles served as dean of the Faculty from 1991 until 2002, bringing its budget out of a deficit and expanding the campus in Cambridge. In a coda to his Harvard career, Knowles was called upon to reprise the role last academic year after his successor was forced from office.

“Deans don’t make an imprint any more than gardeners trample on flower beds,” he said in an interview with Harvard Magazine upon taking the deanship in 1991, writing one of many lines into Harvard history.

That modest assessment was as elegant as it was untrue. His return to University Hall in 2006 was something of a victory lap as Knowles enjoyed the fruits of his previous turn as dean: a much larger Faculty, two new buildings for Harvard’s political scientists, and a new humanities outpost in the Barker Center.

Only Knowles’ closest friends knew that his return would likely be his last gift to the institution that he had given nearly half his life. He had already been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and in April 2007, abruptly resigned as his health began to fail.

When Knowles was at his finest, hand-written notes from the dean blanketed Cambridge like leaves in the fall. Each letter frequently contained a stick figure scribbled on the page, either expressing appreciation or dismay. Other times the Mozart fan would sketch violins.

Somehow, even his writing carried a stately British accent.

“He was very English, almost a caricature of himself,” said government professor Robert D. Putnam, a close friend.

OFFICER, DANCER, CHEMIST

Born on April 28, 1935 in the market town of Rugby, England, Jeremy Randall Knowles lived through wartime days spent in cellars, taking refuge from German bombs. The boy who hid in the kitchen during blitz attacks grew into a leader of soldiers, entering the Royal Air Force at 18.

“I was a very young 18,” Knowles said of his first experience as an officer in a 1997 interview with The Crimson. “I had a funny hat on, so they saluted me, but some sergeants were as old as my father.”

Knowles’ father, like his father before him, was a professor at the University of Oxford. After finishing his military service, the young Knowles followed them there, enrolling at Balliol College, its pristine Gothic campus home to bright and blue-blooded Britons since the 13th century. There he met a don’s daughter, Jane Sheldon Davis, and married her in 1960. Davis, a literary scholar, is an archivist at the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Recalling her husband’s younger days, Jane Knowles said in 1997, “He had tremendous vitality, and he was a great dancer.”

The two played music together—Jeremy on piano, Jane on violin—and they brought their act to Cambridge in 1973.

Arriving as a visiting professor, Knowles became a permanent member of the chemistry department the following year. Having accepted tenure, he was given a lab in the Mallinckrodt building, overseeing the work of 15 researchers.

Carol J. Thompson, a friend and former University Hall colleague, said Knowles paid special attention to promoting women in the sciences. Men and women always evenly filled her husband’s research team, Jane Knowles said.

Knowles’ work at the lab bench helped revolutionize drug discovery through his research on enzymes, which are organic molecules that speed up biological reactions. He helped explain the function of enzymes through discoveries that guide drug development to this day by allowing scientists to specifically target enzymes involved in certain illnesses.

He once explained the theory of his research with an analogy from his past: “If your bombers are being shot down, you can either develop higher flying bombers or you can knock out the anti-aircraft guns and use the old bombers.” Knowles preferred the latter.

In 1979, Knowles was named the Amory Houghton professor of chemistry and biochemistry, a position he held for the next 29 years. Just five years after the appointment, then-University President Derek C. Bok asked him to lead the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the University’s largest faculty and home to the College and Graduate School. Knowles said no.

“When he was asked to be dean,” Bok recalled more than a decade later, “he replied, ‘This is really not the best time for me to leave the lab,’ which is a really nice reaction to get.”

ANSWERING THE DOOR

In 1991, Harvard’s president, by then Neil L. Rudenstine, came knocking, and this time Knowles agreed—but not without some courting.

“The four of us—my wife, his wife included—got together a couple of times,” Rudenstine said, “and we really just let it take a natural course, rather than trying to force it. I knew it wouldn’t work unless he decided he really wanted to do it. We went out together one evening, and at the end of the evening, he said, ‘OK, let’s go. We want to do it.’ And we had a very celebratory end to the dinner. We were launched.”

Hanging up his labcoat and accepting the position of dean, Knowles joined company with a select group of 20th century Harvard men who had not just altered the University but the world around it. In the 1940s, Paul H. Buck held the post, chairing the committee that produced the “General Education in a Free Society” report, better known as the Red Book, which influenced curricula in higher education for a generation. McGeorge Bundy was chosen as dean in 1953 by University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28, later to be tapped by another president, John F. Kennedy ’40, to serve as his adviser.

In the ’70s and ’80s, the office was occupied by economists Henry Rosovsky and A. Michael Spence. Rosovsky shepherded the Core Curriculum, which Knowles helped dismantle last year, and tried to calm the University after the unrest of Pusey’s later years. Rosovsky joined the Corporation, Harvard’s top governing board, in 1985. Spence, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, abruptly departed for Stanford Business School in 1990, opening the position for Knowles.

“There have been two great deans,” Memorial Church reverend Peter J. Gomes said, reflecting on his more than 40 years at Harvard. “Henry Rosovsky and Jeremy Knowles. Each, in their own way, function in such a way that they made one pleased to be a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”

Knowles arrived at a time of budgetary crisis, with annual deficits near $10 million. He deemed himself a “wet-weather dean” and vowed to rein in spending.

“Someone once said he was stingy in the most generous of ways,” Gomes said.

Some of Knowles’ fiscal measures were seen as draconian by Faculty members and students. Among his more controversial moves, Knowles announced “moderation in the growth of student financial aid” and the outsourcing of Harvard maintenance and security jobs.

“We did have serious financial problems,” recalled Putnam, who served for two years under Knowles. “We worked our way out of it. In the end, it feels like a party, but that’s looking at history through the wrong end of the glass.”

Knowles said at the end of his deanship that the hardest part of his job had been “saying no to everything” proposed by professors. “It takes much longer to say no,” Knowles said, “because you must explain yourself.”

Indeed, Knowles quickly built a reputation as a dean of many words. He introduced the first illustrations to the annual dean’s letter, annotating his lengthy missives with detailed financial and enrollment data. (His last letter, in February 2007, took 20 pages and 23 footnotes to say what amounted to a handful of words on the hiring of science professors.)

Despite his protestations, professors said that Knowles was able to turn down the requests of his colleagues with élan.

“He spent four or five years saying no to people,” Putnam said. “He is very good at that. It is not easy to say no. I’m not sure whether he liked to say no to people, but he is good at it because he was able to say no in a nuanced way.”

Though his faculty was strapped for cash in the beginning his deanship, Knowles took incremental steps that would prove critical a decade later. He wired dorms and offices with Internet connections in 1996, earlier than most universities. He formed committees to examine the College dean’s office—which led to a restructuring under former FAS dean William C. Kirby—and the hiring of female professors.

BUILDING A LEGACY

When, later in his deanship, the spoils of a successful capital campaign and strong endowment growth turned deficits into new spending opportunities, Knowles pursued some of the University’s most successful construction projects in recent decades. He refurbished the dormitories in the Old Yard, converted the Freshman Union into the Barker Center, and laid the plans for new government buildings that opened in 2005.

In an historic move, Knowles ordered an extravagant renovation of Memorial Hall, damaged in a 1956 fire, including the restoration of its soaring, Victorian tower, which evoked the Oxford campus.

Having straightened out the Faculty’s books, Knowles’ leadership wasn’t without its moments of controversy. His commissioning of a study of alumnae giving patterns to the University rankled prominent Radcliffe supporters who felt that their alma mater had been overlooked.

“Inevitably, some people get hurt when you make decisions. No matter how well you make them, some people are going to be hurt. They would have to be saints to think you were always right and they were wrong,” Rudenstine said.

Despite the misplay when it came to paying deference to Radcliffe, Knowles was a consolidator, a dean with a tailor-like ability to make things fit, which required a prodigious work ethic, colleagues said.

“I was in the habit of calling Jeremy at home on weekends,” former University President Lawrence H. Summers said in 2002. “I learned quickly that this gave me the pleasure of a conversation with Jane. But if I wanted the pleasure of a conversation with Jeremy, I would be well advised to place a call to University Hall. The light in his office is Harvard’s version of the eternal flame.”

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 remembered Knowles’ coming to academic deans’ meetings to discuss tenure cases with pages of notes, having already engulfed the enormous dossiers given to the deans about each candidate.

“No one ever read it as thoroughly as Jeremy had,” recalled Lewis, who was dean during much of Knowles’ first deanship.

While Knowles made his career as a chemist, he was at home in academic disciplines far from the lab.

“He brought an unusual attention, an unusual analytic power, an unusual sensitivity to fields all across FAS,” Rudenstine said. “Whether it was music or developmental biology or cognitive science or Chinese history.”

Knowles’ visage alone conveyed gravitas, with a face so chiseled it seemed particularly suited for a bust in the Faculty Room. But he also brought an ever-present wit to the Faculty’s highest office.

He kept a hand puppet of a fighting nun in his desk drawer for special occasions. Vincent J. Tompkins, a former academic dean who served under Knowles, recalled one Saturday afternoon when the dean dropped to his knees to entertain Tompkins’ children with the puppet.

“You tended to be struck by his intelligence but there was this incredible warmth,” Tompkins said.

On Halloween night 1993, Knowles greeted a coterie of trick-or-treating Crimson staffers at his Francis Street home with two signs, one reading “Let the Dean R.I.P.” and another that questioned the paper’s credibility. “The Crimson,” it read, “Veritas?”

For many working in University Hall, Knowles grew to be more a friend than a boss. He would force colleagues out of the building to go home to their families, while he stayed late to work.

“For the staff, it was just this sense that he really cared about us as people,” said Thompson, former associate dean of academic affairs. “It just made it more than the standard working for somebody.”

Throughout all, Knowles remained a political operator. Gomes, a fixture of Harvard’s leading power circles, described the former amateur dancer as having “a certain kind of nimbleness, both physical and intellectual.”

“I wouldn’t call him a trickster, but the nimbleness got ahead of others.”

Knowles’ relationship with the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, James R. Houghton ’58, was a subplot to the unraveling of the Summers presidency. Knowles was a close friend of Houghton, whose family endowed his professorship in chemistry. After stepping down as dean in 2002, Knowles joined the board of his company, Corning Inc., a glass and fiber-optics maker in upstate New York, where he served until April 2007.

As Summers’ presidency crumbled in the face of Faculty discontent, Knowles was a confidante of Houghton and a friend of the president’s critics. Though he stepped publicly into the fight only to suggest the formation of a committee to negotiate between the Faculty and Summers, he was privately a critic of the controversial president.

It was Houghton who ultimately played the decisive role in ousting Summers, and Knowles was his closest adviser outside the University’s governing circle.

AN EXAMPLE FOR HISTORY

Summoned to steady the University after its fight with Summers, Knowles, and his longtime friend Bok, had a calming effect.

“I very much felt that there was an adult in charge after the turmoil of the last five years,” Putnam said.

Lewis, who penned the 2006 critique of Harvard, “Excellence Without a Soul,” agreed.

“It was tremendously stabilizing because Dean Knowles knew the affairs of the Faculty like no one else, quite literally.”

For those nine months in University Hall’s second floor office, Knowles reprised his role as the Faculty’s leading actor.

“He was always on stage,” Gomes said.

During their reunion tour, the public exchanges between Knowles and Bok reached the level of high theater.

At the beginning of one memorable Faculty meeting, Knowles found Bok struggling with a broken gavel.

“It is said that Charles William Elliot was at a Faculty meeting in the late 19th century, so furious with the proceeding of the Faculty that after the meeting, it was found he had broken the arm of the chair. I only hope, Mr. President...”

“I will try to restrain myself,” Bok said. “Besides, the arms of the chair are very thick.”

“Since President Eliot,” Knowles quipped.

Bok lost his sparring partner in April 2007, but Knowles assured the Faculty that he would return speedily.

“As Christopher Robin put on his door for Winnie-the-Pooh to read: ‘Bak Sun’!” he wrote in a letter explaining his absence.

He spent the end of the academic year in his hospital bed, but he rallied back from critical condition last summer.

“I think we all knew how ill he was. He made a remarkable recovery. He was holding this disease off for a very long period of time,” said Kirby, who was Knowles’ successor.

After returning home, he began again to appear at University events, attending the inauguration of University President Drew G. Faust, the opening of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a concert of the Collegium Musicum. He entertained guests at his home with red wine and crackers.

“He was in very good mental shape, he was in fine health a month ago,” said Dean of the College David R. Pilbeam. “He certainly had all his marbles.”

He is survived by his wife, three children—Sebastian, Julius, and Timothy—and seven grandchildren.

“Jeremy gave this University his complete devotion,” Faust said in a statement. “From the time I arrived at Harvard in 2001, Jeremy was a mentor and a dear friend. I will miss him enormously.”

“He has done something for the University that very few people have in its recent past,” said music professor Christoph Wolff, who served as graduate school dean under Knowles during the 1990s. “He made an enormous difference to the College, the Graduate School, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He activated the Faculty in a way that I think is exemplary for the history of the University.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writers Christian B. Flow, Claire M. Guehenno, Javier C. Hernandez, and Clifford M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.

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