| by Jason Warburg

News Stories, People

Profile image of Dr. Jan Black smiling
Dr. Jan Knippers Black

Middlebury Institute Professor Emerita Dr. Jan Knippers Black, a widely respected Latin America scholar and faculty colleague, and a beloved mentor to generations of Middlebury Institute students, died peacefully in her sleep at home in Monterey on Sunday night.

Jan was a colorful figure whose sharp mind and tenacity made her a formidable force as a scholar and human rights activist, even as her infectious joie de vivre and passion for teaching, music, and witty conversation earned her friends the world over. As one of the nation’s first Peace Corps volunteers in 1961, she traveled to Chile and sparked a lifelong fascination with Latin America.

When Jan finally retired from active teaching in 2018, she gave a founding gift to help the Institute establish the Jan Knippers Black Fund for Human Rights to support student internships, a speaker series, and an annual prize recognizing achievements in the area of human rights activism.

Jan Knippers Black Farewell Party (Celebration of Life)

A celebration of Jan Black will take place on Saturday, October 9, 2021, 3:00–5:00 pm. Pacific Time at the Pierce Street Promenade on the MIIS campus, between Jefferson and Franklin. Due to COVID guidelines, attendance is limited. RSVPs are required before October 1. If you would like to share any photos, videos, statements, or memories, please add them to this folder. The event will be live-streamed. Any questions can be sent to VPMIIS@middlebury.edu


A full obituary for Dr. Jan Knippers Black, written by Dean of the Institute Jeff Dayton-Johnson, follows below. Jan will be missed by all who knew her, and were better people for it.

Dr. Jan Knippers Black, professor emerita at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, passed away peacefully in her sleep at her home in Monterey on August 15, 2021.  

No remembrance of any length could adequately chronicle Jan’s long, productive, and multifaceted professional life, or the endlessly fascinating footnotes of her biography (as a young musician she narrowly missed joining Elvis Presley’s backing band, and she once danced with Harry Belafonte), her talent for aphorisms (“History is written by the victors—but the losers write the songs”), or, above all, her aptitude for making and nurturing profound friendships. Indeed, Jan lives on in the memories of many generations of friends: confidants and conspirators, debating partners and singing partners, running mates and roustabouts, and fellow travelers and traveling companions, arguing and dancing and celebrating in many languages. These friends, humble and powerful alike, are extraordinarily numerous and spread across the globe, but they are all, by dint of her unusually expansive heart and soul, Jan’s intimate friends. Former California state Senate majority leader Bill Monning, a friend and ally of many years, summed up her intertwining of solidarity, passion, and purpose this way: “She touched so many people through the years and always presented such a positive and sí se puede attitude.” 

Dr. Jan Knippers Black was a globally recognized expert of several decades’ standing on Latin America, its political dynamics, and the relationship of the countries of the region to the United States; she was also well known as a highly visible scholar and advocate for the cause of human rights.   

Jan joined the faculty of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS)—now the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey—in 1991. There she mentored and inspired hundreds of students whose work in organizations large and small amplifies and continues her passionate commitments to human rights and equity. She was a powerful convenor: she brought a long line of changemakers and thought leaders to the classrooms of MIIS to interact with students and community members. And she brought MIIS students around the world, organizing and leading immersive on-site study excursions; notably, to Cuba, to Chile annually over decades, as well as to Bhutan, Iran, and the Balkans. In 2018, Jan made a generous gift to launch the Jan Knippers Black Fund for Human Rights at MIIS, which supports student work and speakers in the human rights area so central to the Institute’s mission—and to the work of Jan’s life. 

Prior to coming to Monterey, Jan was a research professor in the Division of Public Administration, University of New Mexico; editor and research administrator in American University’s Foreign Area Studies Division; and a faculty member in the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester-at-Sea Program. She held Fulbright, Mellon, and other grants; fellowships; and visiting and honorary faculty positions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and India, as well as a senior associate position at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Jan was elected in 2011 and reelected in 2014 to the national board of directors of Amnesty International USA. She has also served on more than two dozen editorial, governing, or advisory boards.  

Jan earned a BA in art and Spanish from the University of Tennessee, an MA in Latin American studies from the School of International Service at American University, and a PhD in international studies, also from American University. Jan was among the first generation of Peace Corps volunteers, serving in Chile, a country to which she would return time and again throughout her life, and a country whose struggle for justice and progress would inspire her work and passion for decades. 

Jan was born in Tennessee on March 10, 1940. She owes much—a love of music as well as (in her words) “a good instinct for politics—for knowing how to decode bureaucratic double-talk and how to interpret power relationships”—to her late father, Ottis Knippers Sr., a gospel singer, state senator, judge, and lifelong Democrat. Jan was a committed and productive member of the Democratic Party, serving on the Monterey County Democratic Central Committee and as an elected member of the executive board of the California Democratic Party for over 20 years.  

Those friends who knew Jan during her Monterey years will inevitably recall those happy times through the prism of her vibrant marriage to fellow Latin America scholar—and fellow singer and songwriter—Dr. Martin Needler. Jan and Marty were married in 1976; theirs was a marriage unusually conducive to research productivity, effective teaching, dizzying globe-trotting, and writing and singing love songs and musical comedy.  

Jan was predeceased by her first husband, John Black; her second husband, Martin Needler; and her parents, Opal and Otis Knippers Sr. She is survived by her sister, Nancy Wilbanks (Gerald Flip Wilbanks); her brother, Ottis Knippers Jr. (Ellen Knippers); her stepson, Dan Needler (Amber Collins); Dan and Amber’s daughter, Chardonnay; and stepsons John and Marc Black, along with numerous cherished cousins, nieces, and nephews.   

An announcement regarding “Jan’s Farewell Party,” a celebration of life, will be forthcoming [see addition above]. Donations in Jan’s memory may be made to the Jan Knippers Black Fund for Human Rights at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, either online at engage.middlebury.edu/pages/give-to-miis, or via mail at Middlebury Gift Administration, 700 Exchange Street, Middlebury, VT 05753 (if sending a check, please write “Jan Black Fund” in the memo line).