Portrait Of a Dean

Jeremy R. Knowles Has Rescued Fighter Pilots And the FAS Budget, But This Brit Loves the Lab

At eighteen, Jeremy Randall Knowles was an officer in the Royal Air Force, in command of troops twice his age and aircraft worth millions. At 62, he commands the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' (FAS) $530 million annual budget and 631 junior and senior professors.

Knowles, who assumed the office of Dean of the Faculty in 1991, has earned the respect of colleagues and subordinates in cockpits, labs and classrooms for his dedication to the task at hand.

Those who have known Knowles best, including his family and former graduate students, call him "disciplined," "driven" and "highly reasoned." He considers his greatest achievement as dean--the elimination of the huge deficit he inherited in 1991--to have come largely through a capacity for saying "no."

But Knowles is also a sought-after speaker, whose remarks are painstakingly prepared during late nights or Saturday mornings at the office.

He has poured FAS resources into large-scale projects like the Memorial Hall/Loker Commons Complex, the massive renovation of first-year dorms and the Barker Center for the Humanities. According to his wife, he's also a great dancer.


As a chemist, Knowles was an internationally known enzymologist. Now, as dean of some of the most accomplished academics worldwide, he is satisfied with his work.

"I really have the best academic job in the world," he says.


Knowles was born near Oxford, England in 1935, the son and grandson of Oxford University professors. World War II hit Europe before he was five, and Knowles has early memories of 1940's Battle of Britain, hiding in cabinets and cellars as German bombs fell on his hometown.

After graduating from secondary school at 18, Knowles followed Britain's national service policy and joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a Pilot Officer.

In his first working day as an officer, Knowles was assigned to pick up 250 enlisted men from London's Victoria station and get them safely delivered to Germany by train.

"I was a very young 18. I had a funny hat on, so they saluted me, but some of the sergeants were as old as my father," Knowles recalls. "That sort of builds character, although as I sat there alone in the officer's carriage, I didn't think about it building character."

Knowles' wife Jane, now the college archivist at Radcliffe's Schlesinger library, says that as a radar-controller in the RAF (Knowles was slightly near-sighted and thus ineligible to fly), her husband learned crisis management skills at a young age.

She tells of one instance during a war games exercise when her future husband took over for another controller who had lost his nerve, inheriting eight jets low on fuel and still in the air. Knowles managed to save all eight pilots and all but one fighter plane.

"That's just the kind of thing he had to do at 18 or 19," Jane Knowles says.