The Historian

Photos by Matt Wright-Steel, Text by Alexander Gelfand

When Dale Knobel arrived on campus in 1998 to assume the Denison presidency, he set out to make some serious changes in the make-up of the campus community. Those changes have made a Denison education more accessible, but they’ve also made campus culture—and the future of Denison—more complex.

It’s a brisk morning in late March of 2013, and Dale T. Knobel is pacing back and forth addressing a packed auditorium in Slayter Union. He comes to rest briefly in order to pull a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and read an excerpt from a letter dated 1906—a letter written by Howard Ferris, a judge on the Cincinnati Superior Court, to William Hannibal Johnson, a Denison professor of Latin who later would compile a brief history of the college’s presidents.

“I have but one son,” wrote Ferris, “and am anxious that he should make the most of his opportunities.

“I sent him to Granville because I believe in small colleges … where an aggregation of students, brought together from different parts of the country, congregate for similar purposes. I believe in a small place, peculiarly adapted for purposes of study … And I was therefore anxious that my boy should live in that atmosphere.”

“That’s Denison today,” Knobel tells the audience—the last group of prospective students he’ll ever meet as Denison’s president. Next year, Adam Weinberg, currently the CEO of World Learning in Brattleboro, Vt., will be standing here as Denison’s 20th president, addressing a bunch of high-schoolers and their parents. And Dale Knobel and his wife, Tina, will be settling into retirement.

Knobel spent the first 20-odd years of his academic career teaching history. And while his schedule forced him to give up lecturing soon after he came to Granville, he still looks like the archetypal college professor: tall, genial, silver-haired, eyes rimmed by wire glasses. He elicits laughter with wry remarks about the college application process, while simultaneously making what amounts to an earnest sales pitch on behalf of the institution he has served since 1998.

The presentation at Slayter is classic Knobel: using a letter about Denison that is more than half as old as the college itself to make a point about the enduring virtues of the institution today. This is, after all, a man who continues to self-identify as a professional historian, and who has made the history of the college a minor specialty—a way of satisfying his scholarly urges and of trying to understand the present through the lens of the past. “Nothing comes out of the ether,” Knobel says. “Everything has context.”

But missing is a crucial bit of context concerning the letter from Ferris to Johnson. The majority of students at the time (and for much of Denison’s history) were white, affluent, Christian, and male. While much of what Ferris had to say about the college still rings true, the “aggregation of students” to which he referred has changed a great deal.

It’s hardly unusual to hear reference to diversity and inclusion at a prospective student meet-and-greet. Those terms have become watchwords among administrators across the country—not to mention selling points for their institutions. But the progress that Denison has made toward those goals has advanced considerably during Knobel’s tenure.

In recent years, the number of students of color at the college has more than doubled, while the percentage of students receiving some form of financial aid has more than tripled.

Gary Baker, a professor of modern languages who came to Granville in 1989 and was chair of the faculty when Knobel arrived, recalls that student cars were once uniformly nicer than faculty ones. That is no longer the case now that one-sixth of all students are the first in their families to attend college, and nearly one-fifth receive federal Pell grants, which go to those with the highest documented level of financial need. There is an increasingly visible contingent of gay and lesbian students, and significantly more religious pluralism, as well. As a result, the Denison community is more varied now than it ever has been—a fact that is reflected in the proliferation of identity groups, from Students of Caribbean Ancestry to the Muslim Student Association.

Knobel is not solely responsible for this, but he did have a considerable hand in fostering it. He’s also quick to point out that having a diverse campus is one thing; learning to work and live and study within that newfound diversity is another.

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