Retiring professor plans to bring joy of lifelong learning to the world

Since Professor Richard Knopf announced he is retiring in May from Arizona State University, he has often been asked what he’s going to do once he officially departs.

“Cry for the next 20 years,” he said with a chuckle, “because I love this job so much.”

But the job he speaks of has been far from singular. Knopf has worn a rack full of hats in the nearly 33 years since he arrived at ASU to teach community development, leisure studies, human services and other subjects in what is now called the School of Community Resources and Development.

Soon, he will have little time to lament, even if he really wanted to. Knopf’s ambitious post-retirement strategy reflects the energy and enthusiasm of an impressively active career.

During his tenure, Knopf served in college and university administration, as ASU associate vice provost for research for ASU’s West campus and as associate dean of what is now called the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, where the School of Community Resources and Development is based. Since 2004 he has been director of Partnership for Community Development, which helps form multisector partnerships to advance life-quality issues in local and global communities.

He once took a year’s leave from ASU to serve as a loaned executive for the Valley of the Sun United Way fundraising campaign. And at ASU, he managed external investments of more than $5.2 million — donations from large businesses, funding from government agencies and contributions from charitable foundations — in centers he directed.

But Knopf is best known for the years he served as director of the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning’s program at ASU, or OLLI at ASU. He has been a tireless advocate for older adults continuing education, social engagement and community impacts through transformative, lifelong learning experiences.

Every year in over 300 online and in-person courses, OLLI at ASU members, as its students are called, explore a wide variety of educational experiences representing the broad spectrum of academic disciplines across ASU. Knopf has guided the ASU program since he became director in 2010, having co-founded it more than a decade earlier.

Getting 'into the DNA of universities’

To hear Knopf speak, it’s plain that as a professor emeritus, he doesn’t intend to see his light diminish, not by a single watt.

“My passion and ASU’s mission have always been woven together. It’s invigorating, and it’s common sense as to why we are in this place,” Knopf said. “The reality of retirement is that it sharpens my zeal to contribute in ways I have not yet been able to. I will continue mentoring, carrying on impactful research on the dynamics of abundant aging, and advocating for better integration of older adults into the teaching and research lifeblood of universities.”

Knopf said he wants to be a spokesperson for the ASU core value of lifelong learning and fueling the growth of older adults on a national and global scale.

“ASU’s service portfolio in that regard is so much richer than other universities. I want to convey the power of that core value of ASU — catalyzing and mirroring ASU’s commitment to older adults to the national and global academic community.”

Not all universities are as age-friendly as ASU, he said.

“Most universities really have neither passion nor programming for the vast array of needs of people over 30 or 40. ASU has one of the best practices that focuses on universal learning — providing opportunities for all, regardless of age, available resources, lifestyle, race, ethnicity, gender identity, and intellectual and physical disabilities,” he said. “My plan is to lift up the possibilities of universal learning that call for the centrality of older adults at other universities in all aspects of scholarship, teaching and service. I will be working hard to co-create innovative curricula that are tailored for post-retirement older adults. In terms of unleashing human capacities, the potential is astonishing.”

‘Very human centered’ in connections with others

Watts College Dean and President’s Professor Cynthia Lietz said she remembers meeting Knopf nearly 20 years ago, when she began teaching at ASU as a social work professor.

“His spirit of service, commitment to student success and passion for community development was contagious even back then,” Lietz said. “Since then, his ability to inspire others has continued to positively influence our work and learning environments across the Watts College for decades. We are fortunate for his years of impactful service.”

School of Community Resources and Development Director and Professor Christine Buzinde praised Knopf’s “phenomenal work” at OLLI at ASU and in many other organizations and institutions.

“He will be greatly missed, in part because of his intellectual dexterity that has allowed him to contribute to multiple areas of scholarship, whether it is parks and recreation or tourism, but also community development,” she said.

Buzinde said Knopf’s career has been about ensuring that knowledge is not only for knowledge’s sake, but for assisting communities to become better places to live, work and play.

“His community development work is unparalleled. He is an individual who is very human-centered in his connection with others,” she said. “All who encounter him will recall the generosity in which he connects with people, the compassion with which he engages with them, but also the meaningfulness he interjects into his conversations with them.”

Professor and former ASU Provost Mark Searle called Knopf “an outstanding colleague, mentor to numerous graduate students, (an) excellent teacher and scholar and, most importantly, one of the warmest people I know.”

Searle recognized Knopf as a thought leader in his work on aging and deepening understanding of the importance lifelong learning has for a vibrant later life.

Steve Thaxton is executive director of the Osher Foundation National Resource Center, which is the convening entity for the network of 125 OLLIs across the United States. He noted that Knopf co-founded what is today one of the largest and most impactful lifelong learning institutes in the country.

“He took it through its growing pains and progression to a highly successful institute — in many arenas, modeling to the Osher Network just how an OLLI can successfully serve a large metropolitan area with its vast and diverse communities,” said Thaxton, who noted that Knopf accomplished these goals while serving simultaneously as a professor and a center director.

Thaxton said he expects Knopf’s continued friendship and leadership now that he can participate in even more OLLI offerings “to enjoy what he so lovingly created over these many years.”

Dancing 'between worlds of practice, theory, pedagogy, scholarship'

OLLI at ASU faculty research associate Craig Talmage will become an associate professor in management and entrepreneurship at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, in July. He said Knopf is one of only a handful of professors who know how to challenge students to construe the world as a plethora of interlinking systems.

“I swear that neurons in my brain rewired themselves so differently after taking his courses, having him mentor me through my dissertation, engaging in our informal conversations in pubs and then crafting well over 20 publications together since 2014,” Talmage said. “He dances between the worlds of practice, theory, pedagogy and scholarship, using steps one can easily follow, yet few hardly ever achieve.”

Talmage said Knopf’s “kindness and care for his students surpasses the expectations of the profession and leads to lifelong connections that inspire such models of love to others in their work as well.”

OLLI at ASU member Kathleen Adamson said she first met Knopf in a class that taught better communication among people who disagree, but she didn’t know he headed OLLI at ASU or was a professor.

“He was just one of two fellow students who I worked with on listening exercises. We practiced what we had been taught and all of us in the class got to know each other a little bit,” Adamson said.

“Fast-forward a few weeks. Rick recruited me to the OLLI Fundraising Committee where I began working with him and others to raise financial resources for OLLI programming at ASU. Since then, we have become great friends, working together and sharing similar values and goals,” she said. “Rick is remarkably kind and generous, sharing ideas and opinions, inviting others into his family. He is learned and thoughtful without being pompous. He is engaged and welcomes others’ engagement.”

'Tender heart and penetrating intellect'

Bjørn Peterson, an OLLI at ASU senior research associate, said Knopf has been one of his life’s most important figures who defies “easy titles or roles.”

“Rick is the rare person whose tender heart and penetrating intellect create spaciousness for true, wholistic inquiry. Like the best traveling companion one could ask for, he’s ready to accompany his colleagues and communities into whatever journey they require while deepening the meaning and rigor with which they explore,” Peterson said. “Rick’s hospitality for learning and being is perhaps his defining characteristic. He has lived a life of tremendous accomplishment, yet maintains a beginner’s heart and mind, choosing wisdom and compassion over certainty and ego again and again. His questions draw people out, never to embarrass or rebuke, but always with the intent to deepen understanding.”

Peterson said anyone who spends 10 minutes with Knopf in the community will find themselves with 10 new friends, “having heard 10 profound revelations of humanity from people who were strangers just moments before. And you will be smiling. I couldn’t love him more.”

Knopf said the vibrancy of the university campus will be one thing he will miss most.

“I will miss the serendipitous encounter of students in the UCENT lobby and of those strolling through the halls,” he said. “There is great power and wisdom through the encounter that emerges from the everyday lived experience of the university, where people interact, gain stature, wisdom and excitement about life and its potential. People talking about who they are, what they want to be. The unexpected enlightenment of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s the miracle of the university.”

Knopf’s career was celebrated April 12 at the inaugural OLLI at ASU Night of Excellence. He will be the School of Community Resources and Development’s guest of honor at a reception in early May.

Mark J. Scarp