Political scientist Andy Knight named Distinguished Professor

A passion for politics and a quest for social justice around the world have fuelled Knight’s trailblazing research.

W. Andy Knight

Political scientist Andy Knight has been named a University of Alberta Distinguished Professor in recognition of his outstanding research, teaching and service.

You could say social justice is written in Andy Knight’s DNA.

To begin with, he has the distinction of boasting two political leaders in his family — Sir Grantley Adams, the first premier of Barbados, and Sir Grantley’s son Tom Adams, the Caribbean country’s second prime minister after it won independence from Britain. 

Growing up in Barbados, Knight would listen to the politicians in his family on Saturday afternoons, railing against the oppression of the downtrodden. On Sunday, he would hear his father preach on the same themes to his protestant congregation.

Knight has since devoted his life to promoting social justice as a political scientist, writing trailblazing books on global governance, women in war, genocide, terrorism, the international exploitation of child soldiers, and the global doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, adopted in 2005 at the UN World Summit.

He can now add another distinction to his family pedigree — University of Alberta Distinguished Professor, awarded for outstanding contributions to teaching, research, creative endeavours, and community service.

“That notion of justice, equality and equity was very strong in the family, and I think I just inculcated that into my own life,” said Knight.

“So much of my research and writing is geared toward those issues. If you look at the kind of publications I’ve done, a lot have to do with the quest for justice.”

Knight didn’t start out with a burning desire to be a political scientist, however. His first degree at McMaster University was in fine arts, where he honed his considerable creative talent as a painter and sculptor and served as the university’s first Black students union president.

He switched to political science only after his parents warned against his likely fate as a starving artist.

Creative training “gives you a certain way of looking at the world that’s a little bit different,” he said. “I’ve certainly been able to use that perspective in my political science work — it comes up a lot.” In fact, one of his paintings was featured in an exhibit at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Kadooment:celebration of Crop Over in Barbados
W. Andy Knight's painting Kadooment: celebration of Crop Over in Barbados

Knight’s research career took off with his work on the exploitation of child soldiers, which led to further studies of the UN, global governance and terrorism. Along with another former graduate student, Afyare Elmi, Knight received a $1-million grant from the Qatar Foundation to study piracy in the Horn of Africa.

One of his proudest achievements was founding the Model United Nations at the U of A about 20 years ago, a course in which students work as mock diplomats assigned to a specific country and undertake UN committee work.

Knight has worked with the UN as an external adviser, and in 2013

was seconded to the University of the West Indies to serve as director of the Institute of International Relations. He was chosen by the foreign minister of Trinidad and Tobago as an adviser on foreign mission negotiations, accompanying the minister on a diplomatic mission to Chile.

“Andy has the personality and charisma of a diplomat, a quality that animates the passion in his research, which is nothing less than world-shaping,” said Catherine Kellogg, chair of the U of A’s Department of Political Science.

“His research has put him at the table not only with respected scholars around the world, but also with policy makers at the highest levels of world government.”

In recent years Knight’s research has turned to the topic of women in war, publishing a book called Female Suicide Bombings in 2016 with his former graduate student, Tanya Narozhna.

Knight said it was a difficult book to write because he and his co-author were researching women who had died in the bombings they carried out. “So most of the information had to be acquired from family members, because they were no longer here to tell us their story.”

That work led to his current study on the female kidnap victims of Boko Haram, with another former graduate student, U of A sociologist Temitope Oriola. The project took them to Nigeria last summer to interview former kidnap victims of the terrorist organization.

Knight’s next project is a book-length study examining the rise of extremist populism around the world and its corrosive effect on the global world order established after the Second World War.

“I'm very concerned with where the political system is headed,” he said. “There is an increase in illiberal democracies, and attacks on democracies, as we saw in the January 6 debacle in Washington. It’s causing us to rethink what will happen in the future for global governance.”

Knight knows much of this reassessment of global governance — as has happened countless times before in his career — will inevitably be left to up-and-coming political science students, many following the trail he has blazed.

“We need to learn from them and find out how to adjust the way we approach political science,” he said.

“Just as we adjust our lenses when our eyesight is less clear, we need to adjust our political lens … and students help us do this.”