No Easy Task

A diplomatic but decisive management style has marked Knowles' decade-long tenure and has won him both friends and battles.

Like the rest of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), Chris Killip didn’t find out that his friend and colleague Ellen Phelan had been dismissed as chair of his department until it was too late.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles had removed her, due in part to anonymous staff complaints, but never told the faculty of their co-workers’ concerns until after he had asked Phelan to resign and never had to provide any evidence to justify making the “administrative adjustment.”

Although Killip was more than chagrined, he had little reason to be shocked—faculty and administrators both inside University Hall and out say that the way Knowles handled the recent VES situation was typical—quietly, forcefully and unilaterally.

FAS’ intellectual and fiscal growth during Knowles’ tenure has been the product of a leadership style that emphasizes streamlined bureaucracy, efficient consultative processes and a moderated, collegial tone of public discourse. Being a popular dean is no easy task—the same faculty that seem to believe they have an inalienable right to be informed, consulted and included in decisions dread serving on faculty committees—but Knowles’ style has won him both friends and battles.

Yet some faculty critics contend that Knowles has made FAS less democratic as he cut through administrative obstacles, introducing a “top-down” approach that excluded their input. Because public conflict is kept to a minimum, they say the real decision-making takes place behind the scenes. And as was the case with VES, Knowles rarely tips his hand until a path has been chosen and the fait accompli can be presented as a positive step.


Navigating this minefield successfully is crucial for a dean to win the support of his faculty, and despite the introduction of several new consultative mechanisms under Knowles’ watch, many professors see him as an autocrat. As Killip put it, “there’s only one dog that barks at Harvard.”

A Forest of Consultation

Knowles’ style of leadership is hardly unprecedented. Traditionally, deans of FAS have served as the University’s number two administrator. A large degree of unilateral authority is built into the dean’s job description: he is solely responsible for setting budgets and appointing chairs, subordinate deans, and ad hoc committees.

But although the Dean’s structural strength within the Faculty has remained constant over the past half-century, the Faculty has in recent decades claimed a greater right to consultation and influence than they had in previous eras.

The catalysts for this change were numerous. According to a report published in October 1969, the draft, ROTC, “the demands of Black students,” “proposals for courses with a radical perspective,” student requests to participate in Faculty decision making and the administrative response student takeovers of four buildings led many vocal faculty members to call for greater oversight and transparency of decision-making processes.

“All that turbulence…enhance[d] the sense that there was a need to take careful account of all points of view,” said Derek C. Bok, Pusey’s successor as President. “The late 1960’s impressed upon administrators that their decisions had consequences.”

The result was the October 1969 report that recommended a Faculty Council as a faculty-elected liaison body between the Faculty and the Dean and instituted a host of new committees aimed to increase the faculty’s consultative role.

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