By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times
It’s a Friday morning in February at Miles College, and President Bobbie Knight, faculty, and staff members are unpacking boxes filled with iPads, keyboards, stylus pens, and AirPods. Students from across campus line up at Pearson Hall to receive the devices, which come at no charge.
The gifts are possible thanks to a federal grant and, for Knight, spending the money on tech is a no-brainer. It’s an easy way to help level the playing field for her students, especially in a world still coping with the impact of COVID-19.
“If you have to go virtual or if you’ve got some assignments that require a little bit more creativity, everybody’s using the same product,” she said. “It just makes sense.”
As Knight prepares to leave Pearson Hall for her next appointment, some students ask for a quick selfie. While at some institutions university presidents are viewed as untouchable figureheads, Knight treats her students like family. She attends sporting events to cheer on the Miles athletes. She walks the campus often and eats lunch in the student cafeteria. Students direct message her on Twitter for advice.
“If they don’t have a mother, an aunt, or a grandmother they can go to, they should be able to come to me,” Knight said.
On March 11, Knight will be inaugurated as the 15th president of Miles College. In August 2019, she began her tenure as interim president and was voted permanent by the Board of Trustees on March 5, 2020.
Asked why she elected to stay on at the school, Knight said simply “I fell in love…I fell in love with the students. When I was on the board, I didn’t see Miles College the way I see it now. I just never really thought a whole lot about the potential [of the school] until I became president. And it was like my world changed. There’s so much I want to do for these students.”
Accepting the position was not an easy decision, Knight added. “I had to pray about it and talk to my husband about it. It’s an all-in kind of thing. When you’re the spouse of a college president, you’re working, too.”
Knight’s husband, retired NFL player and philanthropist Gary Burley, gave $25,000 to the Golden Bears Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the Department of Athletics and its constituents at Miles College. “He does a lot to help,” Knight said of her husband.
“I Had to Do It My Way”
Knight is the first woman to serve at the helm of the four-year private school. While she’s proud of this fact, she doesn’t dwell on it.
“I don’t really focus on it a lot, but I did not intend to try to replicate anything anyone had done prior to me,” she said. “I had to do it my way. I don’t try to be a man. I’m a woman, and I’m very proud to be a woman. … I lead the way I believe is the right way to lead for me and for the people that I work with.”
Knight considered herself an unlikely candidate for the post of president. She was elected to the Board of Trustees for Miles College in 2017 and served on the development committee until the board asked her to take over as interim president of the college located in Fairfield, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham. In December 2021 the board voted to extend her contract to run through May 2024.
“I actually was really shocked when they asked me if I would consider being interim president,” said Knight, who doesn’t consider herself an academician. She’s also not a member of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which founded the school in 1898. She’s not a graduate of Miles College, either. But she has a gift that has made her one of the most successful Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) leaders in the country.
During her tenure as president, Knight has guided the institution through the COVID-19 pandemic and brought the total enrollment above 1,500 for the first time since 2017. Miles saw a 40 percent increase in first-time freshman students for the 2020–2021 academic year, and the school’s total enrollment increased again in the fall of 2021 by four percent.
In 2020, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley donated $1 million to Miles, the single largest donation the institution has ever received. Miles also has a $2 million collaboration with International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) to help the school’s faculty and students learn technology skills. Also, under Knight’s leadership, the school has experienced an increase of more than 500 percent in private gifts and more than 1,100 percent in public and foundation gifts. The Miles College endowment has soared to an all-time high, and the institution has been rated one of the top 10 most fiscally stable HBCUs in the nation.
Even more impressive, many of Knight’s accomplishments come amid a global health pandemic—yet another reason she remains determined.
“I wasn’t done,” she said. “The pandemic got in the way of so many things we had planned. We had to put them on the back burner.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her plans, it didn’t disturb her peace.
“I stayed calm. I went into emergency mode, which is what we did [when I was] at Alabama Power, so I was accustomed to it,” said Knight, who was the utility company’s vice president of public relations when Hurricane Katrina hit and vice president of the Birmingham division when tornadoes ripped through the region in April 2011.
“When we were in our storm center, nobody was stressed,” Knight said. “You’re calm because you’ve got to do your job. You have to stay focused.”
And during COVID, her focus was on helping her students—comforting students who lost family members to the virus and helping out-of-state students make their way home.
Knight has helped assist students in other ways, too. In November, Miles College announced that it would cancel $3.9 million in federal student loans for all full-time students enrolled in the Spring 2022 semester.
An Impressive Career
Knight grew up in the Zion City neighborhood of Birmingham, the youngest of five siblings. Her father passed away when Knight was only 14 years old. She remembers her mother always working two jobs at a time to take care of the household. At one point her mother was a pastry chef and a housekeeper.
“She was fantastic. She could do everything and anything, and I always admired her,” Knight said of her mother, Lillie Knight. “She could cook, could sew, and could garden.”
Knight didn’t adopt her mother’s love of cooking, sewing, or gardening, but she kept herself occupied, nonetheless. Her oldest brother, James Knight—“one of the smartest people I know,” Knight said of her sibling—instilled in her a love of reading. When the bookmobile would visit her neighborhood, it was the highlight of the summer. She was captivated by the suspense of the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mystery book series.
Knight wants to pass on this love of reading to her students at Miles College. She plans to donate books from her personal library that celebrate African American culture to the school. And under her leadership, the school’s C.A. Kirkendoll Learning Resources Center got a complete overhaul, with renovations completed in the fall of 2021.
Knight, who attended Banks High School, went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alabama and a Juris Doctorate from the Birmingham School of Law, where she was the first Black woman to graduate from the school. She is also a graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Executive Leadership Program.
By the time the Miles College Board of Trustees asked her to lead the school, Knight had already retired from an impressive career with Alabama Power Company, after more than 37 years. Additionally, she’s earned recognition for championing the city’s downtown Railroad Park and chaired the board for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Airport Authority. She also is chair of the Board of Managers for The Birmingham Times Media Group. In 2017, she was tapped by then-Birmingham Mayor-Elect Randall Woodfin to serve as co-chair of his transition team.
Knight’s connections are still growing. She works closely with local, state, and national businesses and agencies—including the FBI, the CIA, the Protective Life Corporation, FedEx Corporation, and Honda Motor Company—to offer students opportunities to learn about and better prepare for a broad range of careers.
“She’s putting students in position to be able to do things that I don’t think the average American student at any college has,” said Jarralynne Agee, provost and vice president of Miles College. “Coming from the business world allows her to be able to see the best of both worlds. … She is the bridge between the student’s educational experience and business workforce needs, so our students can compete for and win jobs.”
When Knight talks about the students at Miles College, her face lights up like that of a proud parent.
“They’re champions!” she says of her students—and she’s not just talking about the athletes. Knight is confident that all of her students are destined for greatness.
Knight’s passion for helping the students at Miles College inspires the faculty and staff of the school, as well.
“What I like most about her vision for the school is it’s student-focused,” said Agee. “She’s determined to see students succeed.”
Agee describes Knight’s leadership style as both practical and inspirational.
“She’s an exceptional mentor and leader,” Agee said. “She does a good job of not only inspiring us to be better leaders but also showing us the road map to get there.”
That road map often comes from Knight’s business acumen. She gets the faculty focused on metrics such as enrollment, retention, and graduation rates, as well as funding. But she also champions customer service.
“Whether it’s a freshman or a tenured professor on campus, President Knight really cares about the experience of people that are engaged with Miles College,” Agee said.
Asked what the most important lesson she feels she can teach students, Knight’s answer is certain: “They control their own destiny.”
A Good Neighbor
In addition to empowering students, Miles College President Bobbie Knight wants to bolster the city of Fairfield, which the school is location. Her vision for the campus includes building a multipurpose complex that would be available for Fairfield residents to host events. She also wants to address the city’s lack of access to fresh food and emergency health care.
Miles College owns the site that is home to the former Lloyd Noland Hospital in Fairfield, and Knight told the Alabama NewsCenter website, “I’d love to develop those 44 acres up there and do some things that are fabulous not just for Miles College but for the community. So, my interest is in public-private partnerships that can serve the greater good, not just the institution.”
It’s important for Knight to bring dignitaries to the Fairfield campus, including then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris in March 2020, prior to her historic nomination to serve as vice president under President Joseph Biden; social justice activist the Rev. Al Sharpton just last month, when he spoke during the school’s Black History Month Speaker’s Series and just last week political commentator, author and lawyer Van Jones.
Knight is used to staying busy. She’s earned recognition for championing the city’s downtown Railroad Park and chaired the board for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Birmingham Airport Authority. She also is chair of the Board of Managers for The Birmingham Times Media Group. Other past philanthropic and civic board affiliations include Red Mountain Theatre, REV Birmingham, The Literacy Council, A. G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club, the United Way of Central Alabama, and nearly a dozen others. In 2017, she was tapped by then-Birmingham Mayor-Elect Randall Woodfin to serve as co-chair of his transition team.