Flowers for Brig Knauer

By Dick Anderson Photo by Frances Hill

Over 25 years of leadership in Occidental’s Office of Student Affairs, Brigida Knauer (1935-2023) shepherded residential life into the modern era

Even before he arrived at Occidental, Ben Bauermeister ’82 knew the name Brigida Knauer—“Brig” for short. “My mother had met Brig at a seminar at Bryn Mawr the summer before my freshman year,” he recalls. At the time, Knauer was associate dean of students at Oxy, and “my mom had basically warned Brig to keep an eye on me, which she did.”

Several years later, as a resident adviser in Haines Hall Annex, Bauermeister took part in a late-night prank against another hallway (“Some rules may have been broken”). “Sluggish from lack of sleep, I was crossing the Quad on my way to an 8 a.m. class when a classmate informed me that Brig wanted me in her office before 10,” he recalls. “How did she already know?”

Later that morning, “Brig did not throw the book at me but rather made sure I knew that there was a book—a big one—and it was well within her grasp.” Seeing Knauer years later in Port Townsend, Washington, he adds, “that candor, spark, and solid core were a joy to experience again.”

Knauer, who died at age 88 in Port Townsend on May 17, 2023, was beloved by generations of Oxy students—and doubtless feared by more than a few—over a 25-year career in Occidental’s Office of Student Affairs. “Brig always came across as a tough-as-nails dean, and she certainly could be that,” recalls Ralph Mayo ’82. “But underneath that exterior was a very caring person who would always do what she could to ease your way through a personal or educational crisis. I couldn’t have asked for a person to be more supportive when I needed it.”

“Brig was a rock—patient, kind, very funny, supportive, rational, and all around wonderful,” says Kathy Andrews ’79, who served as head resident of Norris Hall during her senior year at Oxy. “She built community in more ways than I can mention—not just with dorm staff, but with the larger campus community.”

A graduate of UC Berkeley and Stanford, where she earned a master’s in student personnel administration, Knauer came to Occidental as dean of women in 1967. Previously, she had been director of “Women’s Row” at Stanford—eight residences for sophomore, junior, and senior women. She was named associate dean of students in 1970, when gender-specific positions were abolished, and succeeded Ben Culley as dean of students a decade later.

Brigita Knauer, associate dean of students, in 1969
Knauer in 1969.

The role of dean of students is one of the most demanding on campus—unpredictable and frequently stressful. In the 1970s, as associate dean of students, Knauer oversaw the work of the director of residence, 13 head residents (HRs), and 40 resident advisers (RAs)—with a host of responsibilities from dormitory lotteries to disciplinary proceedings.

But her work touched every aspect of student life. During the Vietnam War, one of her tasks was supporting male students who were looking to avoid the draft (those who didn’t keep their grades up were at risk of losing their deferment). “I wrote letters for a few students who were conscientious objectors to the war,” Knauer recalled in 1992. She also served as an academic adviser to a number of students each year.

After Knauer was named dean of students in 1980, she oversaw increases in counsel­ing services, expansion of the residence life staff, and establishment of a volunteer programs center. As a member of the College Council in the mid-1980s, she was instrumental in writing and implementing Oxy’s first sexual harassment policy.

“Clear-eyed but optimistic, Brig was always steadfast in her dedication to students—supporting, defending, encouraging, and understanding,” says Mel Malmberg ’79, who came to know Knauer during her senior year when she was an RA in Norris Hall. “She was the same with colleagues—a terrific mentor and friend with a biting sense of humor and a deep well of humanity.”

Malmberg returned to Oxy in the early 1980s, where she worked in the Alumni Office for several years. “A few of us women administrators would meet at Cindy’s in Eagle Rock before work, and share anecdotes and a few choice expressions,” she recalls. “It was hard not to spit out my coffee once Brig got going.”

Erica (Rechtin) Bauermeister ’80 worked under Knauer as an RA and HR in the late 1970s. “Brig was a revelation for me—I had never before met anyone who was so straightforward.,” she says. “She never put you off or talked down to you, and you knew she would hold whatever line she had drawn. And she supported her resident advisers like the best of mama bears. Of all the people I met at Oxy, she is the role model I have most aspired to follow.”

Knauer was a friend and mentor to others who would follow in her professional footsteps. “During my time at Oxy, I was heavily involved in student housing, being an RA my junior year and HR my senior year,” Pam Raymer-Lea ’76 recalls. While Raymer-Lea was getting her master’s in college administration at Indiana University, Knauer offered her the job of residences director at Occidental. “I turned her down because I wanted to finish my degree,” she says. “I can't tell you how many times I have wondered if that was the right decision. While Brig and I stayed in contact and occasionally had lunch, I wondered what more I could have learned from her had I accepted that job.”

Brigita Knauer in 1979
Knauer in 1979.

Like others who worked with her, Raymer-Lea saw a side of Knauer that belied her administrative persona. “Brig was kind, caring, and truly cared about students,” she says. “I think many of my friends thought that she was cold and hard, but she was also in charge of student discipline and told me that she couldn't afford to be seen as soft.” In fact, she continues, Knauer “frequently asked me to communicate a positive result of student discipline, student housing, or billing fees to a student and not attach her to it. She frequently spoke about students to me, referring to them by name and their situation. I was astounded that she cared so much, knew so much, and truly wanted to take care of those students who needed it.”

When Knauer announced her retirement in 1992, President John Brooks Slaughter noted that “she has served in the crucible called the Office of Student Affairs during some of the most difficult periods of the history of the College and has guided the student life programs of the institution with courage and conviction.”

“By and large, I’ve enjoyed my job through the years,” Knauer told Occidental magazine at the time of her retirement. Talking to writer Kathryn Zirbel ’87, she recounted some of the more inventive pranks that happened on her watch: the dismantling and reassembling of a Volkswagen Beetle in the lobby of Stewie; shopping-cart races with mattress buffers in the residence halls; and the transformation of the area in front of Thorne Hall into a parking lot. “Of course, the joke was always funnier when it was on someone else,” she said.

In later years, Knauer moved to Long Beach and served as president of the board of the nonprofit Alamitos Bay Beach Preservation Group. Her leadership there led to her appointment to the board of Long Beach Transit. Knauer moved to Port Townsend in 2006, where she volunteered with the local food bank.

Survivors include her spouse, trustee emerita Kristine Morris ’76; nephew Steven Ross ’73 and his wife, Maren (Sowerby) Ross ’75; and great-niece Kathryn Ross ’03.