John A. Knauss


R/V Trident


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John A. Knauss, Professor and Dean Emeritus
Graduate School of Oceanography


John A. Knauss earned a BS in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master's degree in physics from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His original research interest was equatorial currents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, the Gulf Stream, and the North Atlantic Western Boundary Undercurrent. Other interests include the history of marine policy and the law of the sea. Knauss was an officer in the U.S. Navy, an oceanographer with the Office of Naval Research, and a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He served as Administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 1989 to 1993, and until recently, was the president of the American Geophysical Union. He is the chairman of the Ocean Research Advisory Panel. He has won numerous awards including the Albatross Award from the American Miscellaneous Society (1959).


When I became the first dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography in 1962, many still questioned whether there was such a field of study. Biologists, physicists, chemists, and others applied their expertise to study problems in the ocean. The idea was to get your training in a more fundamental discipline and then use that expertise to learn more about the ocean. If a survey had been taken of the educational background of ocean scientists in 1962, it would have shown that few had a PhD in oceanography. Most had their formal training in other fields. At the end of World War II, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography awarded the only oceanography degrees in this country. By the time we began our program in Rhode Island, it was possible to earn such a degree at a number of schools including the Universities of Washington and Miami, Texas A&M, and Oregon State. Woods Hole was only a research institution at the time; it did not begin its degree program until 1968. However, the total number of doctoral degrees awarded by these schools was no more than about seven each year, according to a 1962 report by the National Science Foundation.
      When the word went out that the University of Rhode Island was going to build upon the strength of its Narragansett Marine Laboratory, long associated with its school of arts and sciences, and start a new graduate school of oceanography, I was intrigued. The accepted wisdom of the time was that an oceanographic institution needed an ocean-going ship, which meant a seaside facility. Texas A&M's ship facility in Galveston was more than 100 miles from its home in College Station. Oregon State's ship facility in Newport was somewhat closer, but still a long way from the university campus in Corvallis. This meant splitting, in some manner, their marine programs between two locations. It seemed to me that Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay Campus had much to offer. One could maintain a major research facility on the Bay, but also insure there was ample opportunity for students to broaden their education by taking nonoceanography courses on the main campus only six miles away.
      But how to get a ship? I talked to my colleagues at the Office of Naval Research (ONR). In 1961, ONR, not the National Science Foundation, was the major supporter of oceanography. They thought there was probably room for at least one more seagoing oceanographic institution and agreed to grubstake me if I should be hired. I told the URI search committee what I would like to do. They took a deep breath, and I was offered the position. We bought a mothballed 180-foot, one-thousand-ton World War II Army vessel for $500 through the federal government's educational surplus program. Originally designed as small freighters, several of these vessels had been modified to become floating machine shops to be used during the Pacific island-hopping campaign. Scripps was in need of another research vessel, and they had found a few of these mothballed in the Sacramento River in California. We each took one, and they helped me get it towed to San Diego. There I hired my favorite Scripps research vessel captain, Barney Collinson, as combination captain and clerk of the works to oversee its conversion, arranged for Betty Lusk, my former Scripps technician, to set up an office in her bedroom to handle the paperwork, and we were on our way. I came to Rhode Island in early 1962, and a few months later Collinson brought Trident through the Panama Canal and into Narragansett Bay.
      In the ship's hold were some of my household belongings and those of the first two new faculty of the Graduate School of Oceanography, Dave Schink, and Dale Krause. Both were recent Scripps PhDs, and both had required considerable ship time to complete their research. This last was critical. The research fleet is now considered a national facility, and ship time is assigned to whomever has the support and the need. However, nearly all who went to sea in 1962 were affiliated with the institution that operated the ship. Thus, it was not enough to convince ONR that we were capable of operating a major research vessel, we also had to convince them that we could make wise use of it. This meant convincing some of those faculty already at GSO to develop seagoing programs and hiring new faculty who could use the vessel. It is no secret that for the first few years Trident was underutilized, at least compared to some of the vessels at Scripps and Woods Hole. But in time, GSO had as strong an ocean-going research program as the other major academic oceanographic institutions.

The Development of Marine Affairs at URI

There was a model to follow in the development of the GSO oceanography program. It was that established by Harald Sverdrup when he was director of Scripps. Like the University of Washington, Oregon State, and Texas A&M whose chairs were also Scripps graduates, I too used the Scripps model as the basic template for our education programs. All students could, and generally did, specialize in a particular type of oceanography, but all were expected to have at least some familiarity with the full range of ocean issues including biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and geophysics. There were not many such programs, and it may not have been a well-worn path, but we were not breaking new ground with our graduate oceanography program at URI.
      However, in relatively short order, URI became known for the breadth of its marine programs, not just for oceanography. Here we were breaking new ground. Insofar as I could tell, there was little in the way of role models. There had been engineers, resource economists, geographers, lawyers, and others in universities who specialized in marine activities, but to the best of my knowledge, URI was the first to establish degree programs and departments in ocean engineering (1965), marine resource economics and marine affairs (both in 1969), and a two-year program to train commercial fisherman (1967).
      In addition to these new and unconventional degree programs established within a conventional departmental structure, URI also formed a number of marine research/service-outreach groups. The first was the Division of Marine Resources formed shortly before the establishment of GSO. Its goal was to help develop the marine resources of Narragansett Bay. Later came the Law of the Sea Institute (1965), the New England Marine Resources Information Program and Rhode Island Sea Grant (1968), the International Center for Marine Resource Development (1969), and the Coastal Resources Center and the National Sea Grant Depository (both in 1971).
      How should all of this be organized? One could imagine, and I did briefly, a College of Marine Affairs within which one would find the Graduate School of Oceanography and the Departments of Ocean Engineering, Resource Economics, and Fisheries along with the Law of the Sea Institute, the International Center for Marine Resource Development, etc. My conclusion at the time was that it was preferable to try to build strength in marine programs in as many parts of the university as possible. I have sometimes wondered if that was the correct decision, and note some 30 years later the idea has not only resurfaced, but under Margaret Leinen, who served as dean of both the Graduate School of Oceanography and the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, much of it is in place, albeit with a rather complicated administrative structure.
      Rather than housing all the marine programs within a single tent, in 1969 the University gave me the additional title of Provost for Marine Affairs, which formally recognized my direct responsibility for University-wide programs such as Sea Grant, the Law of the Sea Institute, and the International Center for Marine Resource Development. My "dotted line" responsibilities for the marine departments of the other colleges were limited to occasionally meeting with department chairs or championing their causes with their deans, and less often raising my concerns with the same.
      Why this explosion of marine programs at the University of Rhode Island? How did it happen? What, if anything was special about URI during this period that led to URI becoming known nationally and internationally for its broad base of marine-related programs, not just the Graduate School of Oceanography? In retrospect I believe it was the confluence of three quite independent situations: geography, a young university, and administrative leadership.
      Geography. As a consequence of the '38 and '54 hurricanes, there may have been a time not that long ago when Rhode Islanders were ambivalent about the importance and role of Narragansett Bay to their lives and their economy; no longer, of course. I remember in talks at Rotary Clubs and elsewhere, I would say that as a recent arrival from California I believe Rhode Island can be described as a little bit of land surrounding Narragansett Bay. Neils Rorholm and other URI economists soon put real flesh on my bit of hyperbole with their calculations of the importance of the Bay to the Rhode Island economy, an importance that has grown, not diminished, in the past 20 years. We now call ourselves "The Ocean State" and no one suggests the University has its priorities confused in emphasizing marine programs.
      Young university. The 1960s were a time of unparalleled growth in American universities. What was happening at URI was not unique. But URI was also an institution that had only recently achieved university status; our first PhDs were awarded in 1960. One example: Since the Department of Economics did not offer, nor did it have any immediate plans to offer, a PhD in economics, there was little opposition to the PhD program in marine resource economics proposed by the then College of Agriculture in 1969. Because there was little in the way of entrenched programs within the University, I believe the University's marine programs had a somewhat easier passage than might have been the case in a university with a wider span of offerings than was available at URI at that time.
      Leadership. Francis Horn was the URI president who hired me. He decided early in his tenure that he wanted to emphasize oceanography. For reasons I never fully understood, he and Charlie Fish, who as director of the Narragansett Marine Laboratory had a similar goal, were never able to work together. Fran Horn established a new, freestanding Graduate School of Oceanography and went looking for a new dean. Once hired, I found myself reporting to a cheerleader. Fran was determined to grow oceanography at URI, and I was given pretty much a free hand. He became a great champion of the Sea Grant concept and played an important role in that first Newport conference in 1965. This period also coincided with a time of increasing national interest in the oceans: The Stratton Commission was appointed by President Johnson in 1968 to review this nation's marine programs and to recommend what the federal government should do to further their development. Last, but not least, URI had only recently achieved university status. Many departments were attempting to define their graduate mission. The combination of an enthusiastic university president and the early success we were having generating research support at GSO, coupled with growing public and federal interest in the oceans made emphasizing, or even developing, a marine component an attractive possibility in a number of areas of the university.
      In the midst of this expansion of marine programs, Sea Grant was created. The Sea Grant idea was first proposed by Athelstan Spilhaus at a 1963 fisheries conference. It found fertile soil in Rhode Island where we believed we were already doing much of what Spilhaus was proposing. With the enthusiastic support of Fran Horn, I organized the first national conference on the concept of the Sea Grant university two years later.
      Prior to the conference, I had the opportunity to introduce the Sea Grant idea to the then quite junior senator from Rhode Island, Claiborne Pell. The senator was not only an active participant in our Newport conference, but he was able to announce there that he had already introduced legislation to create Sea Grant. The Sea Grant Act was passed in 1966. URI received one of the first grants in 1968 and became one of the first four Sea Grant Colleges in 1972.

Importance of the Bay Campus

As noted earlier, one reason I believed URI was in an attractive situation to build another major oceanographic center was the short six-mile commute to the main campus. I assumed the ideal was the University of Washington where oceanography and all the ship facilities were part of the main campus perched on the entrance to Puget Sound. In retrospect I believe GSO was fortunate to have the six-mile barrier. In 1962, the University had little in the way of facilities to support extramural research. To survive, I found myself rapidly expanding the one-person business office that Charlie Fish had established and soon added purchasing and personnel offices. Since the university had no career track for technical and professional researchers other than faculty, we invented one based on what I had grown up with at Scripps. These groups, along with security, maintenance, and janitorial services, were all on my payroll. Nearly all of these expenses were covered from overhead generated from our federal research grants and contracts. For this reason, the university allowed me to keep 100 percent of the overhead rather than the 50 percent allowed main campus groups. I was, in effect, the chief campus officer of the Narragansett Bay Campus. Everyone on the Bay Campus, from janitor to business manager, recognized that their future depended upon the success of our research program. As a consequence, and because we were small enough that we all knew one another, the Narragansett Bay Campus built an esprit de corps that was the envy of those attempting to carry on similar research programs on the main campus. In time, as the Kingston campus infrastructure became stronger, we lost some of our autonomy, but much of that spirit continued.

Future of Marine Programs

As to the future, I am bullish about the prospects for marine programs. I believe the oceans and the 70 percent of the earth that is under water will play an increasingly important role in providing a variety of resources, including energy and fresh water, to an increasing population. Perhaps even more important is that environmental stresses will also grow in next century. Many of these issues concern the ocean and our need to better understand its role: changing sea-level, coastal pollution, modifying the earth's climate, maintaining the current atmospheric chemical balance, and much more. As they have for the past 35 years, I believe URI's marine programs will continue to play a leadership role on the national and international scene for another 35 years and beyond.