By Michael Sznajderman
Becoming president of Miles College – the first female chief executive in the school’s 122-year history – wasn’t part of Bobbie Knight’s retirement plan.
After 37 years with Alabama Power, where she held several leadership positions, including vice president of Public Relations and vice president of the company’s Birmingham Division, Knight wasn’t in the market for a new, full-time job.
Indeed, Knight had plenty going on even after her 2016 retirement from the power company.
In 2017, she was elected to Miles’ board of trustees and co-chaired newly elected Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s transition team. Then, in 2018, she was appointed to the Birmingham Airport Authority, where her colleagues immediately elected her chair. She also had her own consulting company, not to mention other, ongoing volunteer civic obligations. She is also chair of the Board of Managers for the Birmingham Times Media Group.
But when longtime Miles President George French announced last year that he was leaving to become president of Clark Atlanta University, the Miles board of trustees quickly turned to Knight to serve as interim president of the 1,700-student college in Fairfield near Birmingham.
“I was absolutely floored,” Knight said.
“I deliberated long and hard after I got over the initial shock of being asked to consider this opportunity and I have continuously prayed for the wisdom, strength and courage it will take to lead this institution with integrity, compassion and a servant’s heart,” Knight said during a press conference announcing her appointment.
“During this transition, the job before me is clear; first, to serve the students of Miles College by ensuring they receive a quality education, that they are equipped with the tools they need to be successful here and in the future and that they enjoy a safe and fulfilling campus life. Second, my job is to maintain a fiscally sound institution. I have a business background and my plan is to use business principles and practices to keep this institution financially strong.”
Making A Mark
It didn’t take long for Knight to make a mark.
In January, Miles announced it had received its single largest contribution from an individual donor in school history – $1 million.
The donation came from a celebrity more often associated with another Alabama institute of higher learning: Charles Barkley, the former Auburn University and NBA basketball great and television commentator.
Barkley singled out Knight in his comments about the donation. “I’ve gotten to know Bobbie Knight over the last year and it was really something I wanted to do,” Barkley said in a statement. “To have a female president is a big deal and I want to help Bobbie be as successful as she can be.”
Knight said that even though Barkley didn’t attend Miles or any other historically black college or university, “he understands how vitally important HBCUs have been in this country.”
Barkley’s donation drew national attention, and Knight hoped it would set the stage for more contributions as Miles embarked on a $100 million fundraising campaign. Before the month was over, the school announced it had received a $50,000 contribution to its football program from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and Hueytown native Jameis Winston.
“Having someone of Jameis’ stature selflessly contribute to our growth here at Miles gives credence to what we are trying to accomplish, which is to give our student-athletes the best collegiate experience possible,” Knight said in a news release.
That Barkley cited his relationship with Knight in making his donation is hardly the first time Knight has been recognized for her skills – and for making a difference.
Knight grew up in the Birmingham neighborhood of Zion City, one of five children. Her mother worked as a pastry chef in the long-closed Pizitz department store bakery. Her dad was an inspector at Stockham Valves and Fittings, at that time an important member of Birmingham’s heavy industrial sector. He passed away when Knight was 14.
“Bobbie truly comes from humble means,” said Robert Holmes, a retired Alabama Power executive and longtime civic leader who serves as vice chair of the Samford University board of trustees. Holmes watched Knight rise through the company ranks, starting with an evening shift in customer service and moving through positions of increasing importance.
“She has an unparalleled work ethic,” Holmes said, noting how Knight went back to school to get a law degree while working full-time.
After becoming a vice president at the power company, Knight was chosen among 21 women worldwide for the annual Leadership Foundation Fellows Program of the International Women’s Forum. The exclusive fellowship for female executives included study at Harvard University and the Judge School of Business at Cambridge University in England.
Knight has been honored with numerous other accolades through the years, including Outstanding Alumni in Public Relations by the University of Alabama School of Communications and recipient of the Women’s History Award from the Birmingham Chapter of the NAACP.
She has served on numerous civic and nonprofit boards, including Red Mountain Theatre, VOICES for Alabama’s Children, the Alabama Literacy Council and United Way of Central Alabama. She helped to create Birmingham’s Railroad Park as a member of its founding board and served as chair of the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“When Bobbie gets engaged in projects, she gets engaged,” said Norm Davis, a retired financial services executive who has known Knight for 25 years.
“Bobbie is very strategic in her thinking and her actions,” said Davis, who was working with French on plans for Miles’ fundraising campaign when French announced his move to Atlanta.
“She’s just done everything right,” he said about Knight’s new role as college president. “She’s one of those people that, when she sees something where she can make a difference, she is always willing to roll up her sleeves and go to work.”
He recalls observing Knight on a scalding summer afternoon, watching practice for the Miles marching band. “She is all over the campus, engaging the kids. She is working on strengthening the graduation rate, recruiting students, building relationships.
“She continues to build the community,” Davis added, noting that he and Knight both believe a vibrant Miles College can serve as an economic engine in Fairfield and for western Jefferson County.
“I think we have the opportunity to make a huge difference in this region. That’s what I see,” Knight said.
“She is going to leave Miles better than how she found it,” Holmes said, citing Knight’s passion for the community that raised her.
“Bobbie wants to give back to the city, and the county and the state, from where we’ve both gotten so much from,” said Holmes, also a Birmingham native. “She is a living example of what one can do.”
Power Moves, an ongoing series by Alabama NewsCenter, celebrates the contributions of multicultural leaders in Alabama. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the year for inspiring stories of those working to elevate the state.