At Tufts for 30 years, she worked closely with students and was instrumental in establishing the Asian American Center, the Women’s Center, the Latinx Center, and the LGBT Center
Bobbie Knable, a longtime administrator at Tufts who served as dean of students for the School of Arts and Sciences from 1980 to 2000, died November 15. She was 86.
Knable was born in 1936 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her mother died in childbirth, and she was raised by her great-grandmother for the first five years of her life before moving to Cleveland, where she lived with her great-aunt.
Her great-aunt had only a sixth-grade education and wanted much more for Knable. “My first recollection of that summer arrival was her taking me out to the back porch with a McGuffy’s Reader to begin to teach me how to read, so that I would be able to do that by the time I started kindergarten,” Knable told a Tufts interviewer in 2021.
Her grade school was integrated, but the junior high was not, which was one of the reasons her great-aunt enrolled her in another, better-resourced school in a largely Jewish neighborhood. “I had some marvelous teachers and felt accepted in that environment,” she said. She went on to become class president.
“I think that so much of that environment made it possible for me to see other possibilities for me and to be comfortable in other environments,” she said. She added that she always remembered “how much luck is a part of what one does. You can’t always attribute stuff to just working hard, being responsible. There are certain things that you can’t attribute to anything other than good fortune. And my aunt was part of my good fortune.”
She graduated from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1958 and moved to New York City in 1960, where she met Norman Knable. They attended the March on Washington in August 1963 together, and married later that year. She worked in the national office of the Congress for Racial Equality during the year preceding their move to Boston in 1965.
In 1970, when her son Jacob was two-and-a-half years old, Knable went to work at Tufts, where she remained for 30 years, beginning as a teacher in the English department, and then, in succession, becoming director of a program for older women returning to college, dean for first-year students, and dean of undergraduate students.
Her first job at the university was as an instructor in the English department, coordinating an alternative freshman writing course. She said in 2021 that under then dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Bernard Harleston, efforts were being made to increase diversity, and she was hired to meet the needs of newly admitted Black students from under-resourced high schools. In fact, she said, everyone benefited, as the classes, which included many white students, received the support they needed to excel.
The university at that time “had increased the size of its women’s student population to equal men . . . and offered scholarships to Black women to come to Tufts,” she said. In 1974, she was appointed to head the Tufts Continuing Education Program for Urban Women, now called the Resumed Education for Adult Learning program.
She then became dean of first-year students, and when in 1979 the dean of students left, Knable was asked to take the position. She initially didn’t want the job permanently, thinking it was a mainly adversarial role. But after five months, she realized that “there were lots of things that deans of students do to make the lives of students work in the educational environment that have nothing to do with discipline.” She took the permanent position in 1980 and stayed for 20 years.
“It took me a long time before I realized that I was an introvert,” Knable said. “It gave me an appreciation for the fact that listening to people, trying to hear things from their perspective, gives you some way of being helpful to them. It gives you a path where they can feel reasonably sure that you understood what their issue is.”
She would tell students that “whatever you’re doing, it’s important that you do it wholeheartedly,” she said in 2021. “It’s not so much that you can predict what comes out of it or what comes next, but that if you’ve taken advantage of it to do things that will give you a sense of satisfaction, no matter what comes next, you will have that.”
The best part of her job was helping students, she said. It was “always such a pleasure to have a student say, ‘I knew you and you were helpful to me.’”
While dean of students, Knable also oversaw the expansion of identity centers for students.
“Informed by her leadership and Tufts’ commitment to admit and serve diverse student communities, Bobbie was instrumental in the establishment of the Asian American Center, the Women’s Center, the Latinx Center, and the LGBT Center,” said Katrina Moore, senior director of the Africana Center. “She believed the educational experience is enriched for everyone when institutional membership is accessible to diverse groups. It was a great honor to engage with her and learn from her vast Tufts experience.”
During her career, Knable received an honorary degree from Oberlin College, served on the accreditation board of the New England Association for Schools and Colleges, and was a trustee at Bennington College from 1996 to 2017. She also was on the boards of directors for the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis, City on a Hill Charter School, Pine Manor College, Vermont Academy, and Driscoll Extended Day Program, among others.
Knable was named dean emerita upon her retirement in 2000. She stayed active, becoming involved in Brookline, Massachusetts, town government as a Town Meeting member and a member of the town’s Advisory Committee, the Martin Luther King Celebration Committee, and Brookline Pax.
A memorial service for Bobbie Knable will be held on Saturday, December 3, at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Bigelow Chapel, located at 580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, at 1 p.m. The service will also be available via Zoom; for the Zoom link, please email email@example.com.