Oral-History:John King (Apr 2021)

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About John King[edit | edit source]

At the time of the interview, John Leslie King was W.W. Bishop Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. For many years prior, he had served as a faculty member and administrator in the information school at the University of California Irvine. He held both faculty and administrative roles at Michigan in both the School of Information and the university central administration. His main research deals with computerization in the public sector and municipalities, as well as other organizations. He has also worked on privacy issues and some of the primary computerization projects.

In this interview, John Leslie King recounts his early life and education, and his undergraduate and graduate education – all of which happened at the University of California Irvine. He discusses his years as a faculty member and as an administrator at Irvine, mostly in Information and Computer Science but also as an administrator in the university library and the management school. He also discusses his time as a faculty member and dean in the School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, as well as positions in the university in the provost’s office to work on IT and as Vice Provost for Strategy. He discusses various elements of the information school movement beyond his personal involvement.

For the next oral history session with King, see John King oral history, August 2021.

Copyright Statement[edit | edit source]

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE Computer Society. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the IEEE Computer Society.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

John King, an oral history conducted in April 2021 by William Aspray, IEEE Computer Society

Interview[edit | edit source]

Interviewer: William Aspray

Interviewee: John King

Date: 4/29/2021

Location: Virtual

Aspray:

Okay. So, this is the 29th of April 2021. This is an interview with John King. The interviewer is William Aspray. We're doing this interview by Zoom. I assume that you're in or near Ann Arbor, but I don't know that for a fact.

King:

I am in Ann Arbor.

Aspray:

Yeah. And I'm in Boulder, Colorado. So, let's begin by talking about when and where you were born and about your upbringing, what your parents did, siblings, that sort of thing.

King:

Sure. Well, I think the things that are germane to the interview are that I was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1951. I was eventually the middle of a family of five children. So, we were on the large-ish side by today's standards. My father had been an officer in the Second World War, and he had stayed in the army reserves. He was a member of the Corp Engineers and he was reactivated during the Korean conflict. And as a result, he was assigned to the Denver Field Office at the St. Louis Ordinance District to run that procurement operation, in Denver, Colorado. So, I was basically a kid in Denver. I don't remember St. Louis at all.

King:

We lived in Denver for about 10 years. And during this time, of course the Korean war ended. My father was deactivated, but he remained in the job that he had and he became the civilian head of that office. Then he was like many members of the civilian ranks of the Department of the Army picked up by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when it expanded. He became a procurement officer with NASA and we moved to Northern California, outside of Sacramento, where believe it or not, they were building the second stage engine for the manned mission to Mars. This was in 1961, and he stayed with NASA all the time I was in high school.

King:

We moved to Southern California. He switched jobs within NASA, and we moved to Southern California. I lived in Southern California for about 35 years before moving to Michigan. So, I was basically a NASA brat. I was a NASA kid and because my father worked in procurement and then when we moved to Southern California he moved in technology transfer, he had access to NASA’s PR operation. So, we used to borrow 16 millimeter projectors and watch the movies that NASA made for Congress of the missions. It was kind of fun.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). What kind of student were you and what were your interests as you were growing up?

King:

Well, I was always interested in science; and in high school, we had a particularly strong life sciences program. So, I became very interested in that. That's actually when I got into computing. I got into computing through what later became office automation. My first computing device was an IBM Mag Tape Selectric typewriter. When I got to college, I took a turn toward the humanities, and my bachelor's degree in college was in philosophy, particularly philosophical theology. I read Thomas Aquinas and those people. Then I went into administration, the study of administration.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Why did you go to Irvine? You had all of your degrees from Irvine.

King:

Yeah. Well, I wasn't intending to go to Irvine, but the true short story is that my oldest sister got into a severe automobile accident that was not covered by insurance. A lot of the money that was intended for me to go to college went to her because she was badly injured, which was okay with me. I had to pick a plan B, and plan B was to live at home the first year and commute to UC Irvine. But that was not a big surprise because UC Irvine was basically a commuter school anyway. So, I started there as an undergraduate and I just kind of stayed for a long time.

Aspray:

Sometimes faculty members advise students to change from one university to another to get perspective. What was your experience?

King:

Well, I was so advised on numerous occasions. It was an awkward situation because these people were very good and they didn't want to say, you need to go to someplace better than UCI because they were at UCI, but UCI was basically a startup enterprise. It was an expansion team at that point. I moved from place to place at UCI; so, I still had some switching costs and so forth.

Aspray:

Right. When you arrived as a freshman, the university was maybe what five years old, or even less than that, right?

King:

Yeah. It was about five years old. I came in 1969. The campus had been officially opened in 1965. It was part of the three campus expansion; Santa Cruz, San Diego and Irvine were all started at essentially the same time.

Aspray:

Given that it was a startup campus and also that fact that this was the late 1960s when there was liberalism in the universities did that have some bearing on the kind of university experience or the freedom you had as a student during those days?

King:

Well, yes, it did, but it varied depending on what you were studying. The two things that are important to understand about Irvine in the late 1960s was that it was not nearly as liberal as some places were. There was a kind of a joke that there wouldn't be a riot at Irvine unless they gave credit for it. And UCI was designated by the Regents of the University of California as the computer campus. It was supposed to be the campus that used computer-aided instruction and there was extra money for that and so forth. So, I would characterize UCI as kind of a technocratic place in those early days. We had protests, of course and there was [the] Cambodia invasion and all that stuff.

But one of those ironic stories to come out of UCI at the time was that the students had voted that there should be no fraternities or sororities at UCI; and the chancellor of the UCI campus Dan Aldrich had said that the students would decide this. There was a court case that involved the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that forced the University of California to have fraternities and sororities. The case in point was the Students for Democratic Society, because there was a chapter of the SDS at Urbana-Champaign, but there were not chapters of the SDS at other University of Illinois campuses. The decision the court made was if you do it for one, you have to do it for all.

Aspray:

I see.

King:

And there were fraternities, sororities, [at] other UC campuses. So that forced Irvine's hand.

Aspray:

I see. But you didn't run out and join a fraternity?

King:

I did not. The places that I studied, particularly in graduate school, were not given to social protest.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

I mean, even during the most intense times of protest, there were certain fields that didn't go along. They told the students you have to come to class, you have to do the work. You have to pretend like this is normal. And if you cut class to go to this demonstrations or whatever, that's going to count against you.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

And this was, I would say about half of the campus was under that.

Aspray:

Right. So how did your interest in management issues arise? You were doing an undergraduate major in philosophy. How do you explain this path?

King:

Well, there were actually two elements of the path that were important. One was I went through my undergraduate program fairly quickly; and it sounds kind of crazy to say it now, but the truth is I hadn't really thought about the consequences of finishing sooner. And one of the big consequences was that I would become 1-A in the draft.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

So, I thought about how to maintain a student deferment. The other thing that happened was just serendipity. I took a class in educational administration because I got a teaching credential in biology because I'd been very interested in the life sciences. I had what was equivalent at the time to a minor in biology, but UCI did not give minors. So, I qualified as a secondary school teacher in biology, went through that program, teacher education fifth year program. And I took a class in educational administration that was taught by a guy from [the] Administration school; and he said, "Why don't you come over and get your master's degree in administration?" And I did. So, I stayed and got a PhD.

Aspray:

Okay. And there are various paths within an administration school or management school you can take, could you talk about your path?

King:

Well, as peculiar as it sounds, my initial path was primarily in public administration. I was working with somebody-- Ken Kramer-- who had been one of the pioneers in studying the effects of computerization on public administration. We got an NSF grant to study that ,and I worked on that and became kind of familiar with the issue.

Aspray:

So let me understand. Was Kramer a faculty member while you were a graduate student; is that correct?

King:

Yes. He was a faculty member of the Graduate School of Administration. I started working on this grant from the National Science Foundation that he had received. Well, it was basically an evaluation of policy-related research. So, it's on information technology, the use of information technology and so forth. I would characterize our interest in that primarily around the question of bureaucratic reform. There was a theory that pursuit of the technology would change how organizations operate from a power structure based on traditional political organization to a power structure based on technocratic organization. And that in a subsequent project, that's what we studied.

Aspray:

Okay. And was that your dissertation topic?

King:

Well, yes and no. My dissertation kind of piggybacked on the big survey that we did, but my dissertation didn't focus so much on the bureaucratic reform angle and the power shifts and that kind of stuff. It really focused on centralized versus decentralized computing. That was a big deal then.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

A very big deal.

Aspray:

Yes. So, in graduate schools in this general area, there were places that call themselves Administration schools, some places call themselves Management schools, some places call themselves Business schools. Can you talk about how these differ and what the particular flavor was at Irvine and how it shaped your career?

King:

Yeah, well, I mean, this is just one reporter's opinion, but the school at UCI went through all three. It was an Administration school and then it was a Management school and now it's a Business school, officially. So, people who started the Graduate School of Administration at UCI came mostly from Carnegie Tech. They were students of people like Herb Simon and Jim March and people like that. Also people who had been influenced heavily by J.D Thompson, who was the person who founded Administrative Science Quarterly. His view of the world was that there isn't public administration, business administration, health administration, there's just administration.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

So, we became the Graduate School of Administration and we kind of held to that philosophy. It was a small faculty, of course, it was a startup faculty, but the faculty members spread the gamut from public administration to business administration and so forth. And the kind of theme that tied all of that together was changing organizations in light of external forces.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

It was a kind of organization and environment approach. There was a lot of talk about the systems perspective. There was actually quite a bit of interest in computer technology as part of that scheme. So, we built a fairly robust group in looking at the effects of computers on organizations or the effects of computerization on organizations. There was a lot of speculation about what this would mean and that's what we did.

Aspray:

As you were going through college and graduate school, what kinds of ideas did you have about your career?

King:

Well, I'll just tell you one story that kind of illustrates this. I was a master's student and I was standing in line at the card reader. Some people will still remember those technologies. The person in front of me at the card reader was a PhD student in the Graduate School of Administration. He turned around and asked me, "Why aren't you in the PhD program?" And I said, "I don't know." I mean, the honest truth is that it hadn't occurred to me. He said, "Well, I think if you look closely, you'll see that the faculty members and research universities lead a pretty nice lifestyle. And that's why you should go on the PhD program." That's when I started thinking about it. And eventually I did. I mean, that wasn’t the only reason, but up until that point, I hadn't really thought about it. But then I did think about it, and I went through the PhD program and got my PhD, and then I moved over to information and computer science as a faculty member.

Aspray:

Let me hold that [topic] for a minute. I'll come back and talk about that. As you were growing up, say, during your public education, K-12 plus your undergraduate and graduate education, were there some particular people who were very influential on your life or career?

King:

Well, yeah. Yes. When I was in high school, I couldn't drive. I was too young to drive. I would ride my bike places. One of the places I rode my bike to was an occupational rehabilitation organization. I came to know the guy who ran it, and one day he said to me, "Why don't you come to this exhibition of technologies to support people for rehabilitation?" So, I rode my bike to the exhibition of the technologies and that's where I encountered the Mag Tape Selectric typewriter.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm(affirmative).

King:

There was nobody else there. So, I asked the IBM person who was running the exhibition if I could play with it. And she said yes. So, I played with it. That's when I realized this is really going to change things. That was the first example that I'd ever encountered of word processing. I had been taking typing in high school and I knew how clunky that was. So, I mean, the big problem is error correction.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

The Mag Tape Selectric typewriter was a very clunky error correcting device, but it worked.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

So, I saw that, and then I became exposed to shared logic word processors and shared logic calculators. And I realized this is really going to change things. At that point I started becoming interested in organizational information systems and what became office automation.

Aspray:

Right. Okay. Are there any other things you want to tell me about the period of time we've talked about so far?

King:

Well, one of the things that's probably not looked at very often is this was the period of the Apollo mission. Because my father was in NASA, I had a closer look at that than many people do. And the centrality of computing technology to even making the Apollo missions feasible was really tremendous. Basically what saved the Apollo 13 mission was keeping the computing technology running. I mean, it wasn't the only thing, but there were a lot of things, and the Apollo 13 mission was of course really a big deal around our house. So, I became very interested in the changes brought about in the society at large as a result of information technology. That was a particularly important point because that was the beginning of the run-up to the personal computer. The 1970s was the run-up. I remember going to the either was a fall or spring Joint Computer Conference at the Anaheim Convention Center and meeting Jobs and Wozniak and thinking to myself, nobody's going to want one of these things. That turned out to not be true.

Aspray:

Indeed. During this period of time, how much experience had you gained in terms of your technical education and computing? Had you programmed? Had you taken courses in math or computer science that were relevant to this?

King:

The best way you could describe me was I was self-taught. I learned to program on my own by taking source code that had been written for a particular class of applications. Today, it would be called open source, but it was prior to the open-source movement. This was in the public domain, and I took the software and I hacked it to do other things that I wanted to do with it. That's when I began to realize the power of this. Then I started hanging out a lot with people who were computer science majors, even though I wasn't a computer science major, and worked at the campus computing center. We had two machines that were really interesting in the campus computing center. One was an old Xerox; it was originally an SDS machine, a Sigma 7, and it was essentially a batch machine. But the other machine that we had was a DEC-10. That was a 36-bit machine that was, I think, really ahead of its time. I got to know that infrastructure pretty well. I bet I did my dissertation on the DEC-10.

Aspray:

Okay. So, you're finishing up your PhD-- what plans did you have for your future?

King:

The social contract in those days was very different than it is now. If you go to any institution, any reputable institution, and you study anything, and you do reasonably well, you're sort of guaranteed a job. Well at the PhD level, it was still an expansion world…

Aspray:

Right.

King:

... and so if you got your PhD at a good place -- and Irvine was a good place -- then you probably would get a job on a faculty somewhere.

Aspray:

Yes.

King:

I had several job offers, but I was most intrigued and most surprised by the one that came from UCI, from Information and Computer Science, which I hadn't really expected. There was a group at Information and Computer Science at Irvine that was very interested in social impacts. These were people like Rob Kling and so forth. They said, this guy knows what he's talking about in this area. I moved over there. While you could say that I'm not a computer scientist, I sort of went native among computer scientists and learned a lot about the business.

Aspray:

Right. And I mean, it's a little bit unusual that a computer science program would be Information and Computer Science in that era. Can you talk to me about the history of that department?

King:

The guy who started the department was a guy named Julian Feldman.

Aspray:

Oh yes. Right.

King:

Feigenbaum and Feldman, Computers and Thought-- he edited it. One time when I was chair of the department, and Julian walked into my office and said, "You might want this." And he laid a piece of paper on my desk. It was blue. So, I knew that it was official because the blue memoranda at UCI were official memoranda. This was the document that established the Department of Information and Computer Science back in the 1960s. What was really interesting about this document it was establishing the Department of Information and Communication Science, and the word ‘communication’ was scratched out and the word ‘computer’ was written in above it. So, I asked Julian, "What's that about?" And he said, "Well, before the official communication went out, I thought: these computers are becoming a big deal. So I scratched out communication and wrote computer.” There was, of course, a protracted turf battle over whether Information and Computer Science should really be part of Engineering. That went back and forth for a number of years, and then finally it became the Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Had you known the people in this unit, Kling and so on, while you were a graduate student?

King:

Yeah. I knew several of them pretty well. Rob Kling had worked with our group studying the effects of computerization on organizations. I knew some of the people who were engaged in software, because software was obviously becoming a bigger deal. These people were kind of at the forefront of thinking about that. So, I was attracted to that, and they'd became supporters of appointing me.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Looking at your CV, it indicated that you had had your primary appointment in this department, but you also had an appointment in the administration school?

King:

Yeah. My original appointment was the appointment to the position of a guy who left. The University of California, at that time, used something called salary control numbers. It was very bureaucratic. I took the slot of a guy who left, named Fred Tonge. Fred went to Oregon. He had a 50/50 appointment, he was one of the founding faculty members, and not just of the Graduate School of Administration, and Information and Computer Science, but of UCI. So, I took his position. Fred had a 50/50 joint appointment in ICS and GSA. When I took his position, I told the then dean of the Graduate School of Administration, Lyman Porter, that I didn't want a 50/50 appointment, I wanted the appointment to be unbalanced. He was keen for that because he thought it was kind of incestuous to have somebody who graduated from the place on the faculty. So, I had 75% in ICS and 25% in the Graduate School of Administration.

Aspray:

Okay. It's also not good for a junior faculty member to have two masters who think that they're principally in their department.

King:

Well, I subsequently talked to other people who had gone through the tenure process as 50/50 appointments; and they all thought I was really prescient to have avoided them. It wasn't prescience on my part, but I did it.

Aspray:

What kinds of things did you teach in Information and Computer Science?

King:

Well, that was a good question. I started out teaching a large introductory class in programming for non-computer science majors. It was a required class for social science majors, most of whom who hated it; and I and another guy who was in the software area, who knew a lot about programming, co-taught this class. Subsequently, I taught classes that were kind of at the intersection of technology and organizations. By the 1990s, the last decade I was at UCI, I started thinking that the kind of work I did was most relevant to the issue of requirements. So, other things started moving toward requirements.

Aspray:

Okay. Was there a two-culture problem in ICS, where there's a set of technical people and a set of organizational people who didn't necessarily get along or see the world differently?

King:

Well, of course there were turf issues, but what was interesting about ICS was that relatively few of those turf issues were explicitly around the two-culture problem that you described. Well, I mean, there was some of that, I won't deny it, but they were more around the question of what's practical? What are you going to teach people they can use? That was frankly part of my incentive to look into requirements and parenthetically, after I and some other people left, including Rob, the group that we were part of moved more toward human-computer interaction.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

I would say they're more in the human-computer interactions base than social impacts or requirements or whatever that we were doing.

Aspray:

Okay. I lost my train of thought. I'll talk in more detail about your research a little bit later in the interview, but let me ask a question that touches on the research right now, [namely], looking at your CV, I see that you continue to do lots of work with Ken Kramer who was over in the Administration school. Did you do active research collaboratively with the people in your group in ICS?

King:

Well partly that's explained by a structural issue. Ken was head of an independent research organization, called an Organized Research Unit in University of California parlance, the Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

And as a campus-level ORU, it took people from a lot of different places. So, Rob ran all of his research through there. And I continued to do my research through there. In many cases, the research that I did through there was a continuation of the work that we had started in the 1970s.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

People talk all the time about how you need to do longitudinal research. Well, we were doing longitudinal research. We were studying the effects of computerization on public administration and city governments well into the 1980s.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

When you study local governments, you learn a lot about local governments, right? So, we had a pretty substantial corpus of knowledge by that point and that was a good thing, particularly given the fact that, with each passing year, the effects of computerization on organizations and on society grew, but most of the understanding of those effects lagged. People didn't anticipate what this was going to become.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

That was a fairly standard signature. When they did talk about what it's going to be like, it was ridiculous. I mean, the stuff that they talked about was completely ridiculous. Like in 1958, a couple of organization scientists, Whisler and Leavitt, wrote a paper that appeared in the Harvard Business Review called, Management in the 1980s. Well, a lot of what they talked about just didn't happen.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

It made sense at the time, but it was like Kurt Vonnegut's stuff, computers in Carlsbad Caverns and stuff like that.

Aspray:

Right. Okay. I noticed that you were promoted to associate professor quite quickly, after four years rather than the typical time. So, your colleagues within the department must have valued the kinds of things that you were doing. Could you talk about how you were received in your department?

King:

I think the best characterization that I ever heard of this was just wrong enough to show me why it worked. Somebody came up to me and said, "Well, we do things with computers but computers do things to us and that's what you're studying." I mean, there's actually not very much that we don't do to ourselves, and we might use computers to do it, but computers aren't actually doing anything to us.

But as for the causality that's behind the role of these things, that's much more complicated than people think it is. As an example, Rob one time in a conversation I was having with him said, "If the primary federal agency behind the development of computers was not the Department of Defense, but was instead the Department of Health, Education and Welfare--" (it became Health and Human Services) -- "We wouldn't be talking about aborting jobs."

Aspray:

Right.

King:

So yeah. It was fine.

Aspray:

You stayed at Irvine for a long time. You moved up through the ranks, you took on various kinds of management positions, both within the department and elsewhere in the university. Had you thought about going any place else or was this a particularly good place for you to be?

King:

Well, of course I thought about other places, and I talked with other places, and I had offers from other places. But what it came down to at the end of the day was when you net out everything, the opportunities that I had to move from Irvine to some other place were not as good as the opportunities of staying at Irvine. That lasted until the late 1990s, then the game began to change and I ended up in Michigan.

Aspray:

Right. Okay. Could you talk about your manager roles that you played at Irvine? Library and department chair and so on.

King:

Well, one of the things that I was really surprised when I just started teaching undergraduates in computer science was these people were very smart when it came to mathematics, but they didn't know zip about how it's actually used.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

So, for example, I would guess that maybe one out of 50 computer science undergraduates could tell me how profit is calculated. And I'm like, "Revenue minus expenses, that's profit."

Aspray:

Right.

King:

That's not a complicated equation.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

So, part of what I came to in this was to actually teach something about management. I was studying management. My PhD was in administration. I had been studying administration for a long time, and I knew something about it. Plus, there were really important books that had been written about administrative behavior and other things like that, that I had read. They had an influence on me.

So, I mean, there's an old saying "In the valley of the blind one-eyed person is king." I took on management roles because a lot of these issues just seemed kind of obvious to me. And more than once I had the experience of a colleague who maybe came from computer science or something, being amazed that I could see it. That I could look at something and say, "Well, obviously this is what we need to do." But how did you know that? It's just tacit knowledge.

One of the things that I learned in studying management is that a large amount of routine operational management is just brokered deals between people. Within the larger rules, structural people come to accommodations, but when circumstances warrant, the formal system kind of bats last.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

So, the trick always was, why are we studying to enter into the formal system batting last? Kind of leaving the zone of a negotiated order. We're moving into the zone of “this is the way it has to be.”

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

I think most managerial problems come down to that.

Aspray:

Were there particular issues that arose while you were the chair of the department?

King:

Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, one that comes to mind is a timely issue now, so this was a bit of a precursor, a situation that arose that turned into what some people thought of as a sexual harassment thing, that was later corrected as gender harassment. That distinction was meaningful. This had to do with something that was posted on a community distribution list. Today ,it would be social media or something like that. Somebody had posted something on a shared site and other people saw it. There were only two alternatives. You could either be a defender of free speech or of censorship. The choice was yours.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

This is the kind of thing that happened.

Aspray:

Uh-huh (affirmative). How did the department change over the period while you were chair? You were chair about five years, is that right?

King:

Yeah. It grew. That was one of the major factors. And in studying management, I had learned that everything regresses on size.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

Size is the most important factor in organizations. That's how you structurally respond to things. It really affects span of control, all kinds of things. So, I could see as early as the early 1990s that ICS was probably going to become a school and it was probably going to departmentalize.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

At the time it was a kind of free-floating department. There was always somebody who wanted to clean up your org chart. ICS was monolithic, not departmentalized. But I felt that schoolhood and departmentalization was coming. And that did in fact happen after I left.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). As the growth was going on, were you in a position to be able to help the department think through the ways that it should change ,new strengths in the department, new directions in the department, that sort of thing?

King:

Well, of course my conceit was yes. My guess is if you asked certain people if I had that effect, they would say no. But the best indicator is that the department successfully became a school and successfully went through departmentalization and is larger and stronger than it was before. I think that was due to something that I continued (I wasn't responsible for starting it). We were not afraid to discuss difficult challenges and we did. I don't know how that happens now. It's been a long time since I've been there, but it became important in the following sense.

The importance of information technology in the society was growing very fast. And any notion that we had the right bureaucratic structures and solutions to dealing with that was kind of naive. We just talked through the problems. I'll give you a concrete example. In the 1980s, particularly in the early 1980s, shortly after I joined Information and Computer Science, we had a very good discussion about what we wanted to be when we got bigger. The answer was twofold. We wanted to be a stronger and more highly ranked unit externally, but we didn’t want to become a horrible place to work.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

So, there was this kind of notion that there's a trade-off and that kind of stuck.

Aspray:

Okay. Can you tell me the story of the origins of the Bren School?

King:

Well, every creation myth has its own adherents.

Aspray:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

King:

The Bren School was created after I left.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

The key elements were alignment of the academic senate apparatus at UCI, the Irvine division of the University of California academic senate. This idea was politically controversial: figuring out what needed to be done internally to get ready for this and finding the resources to do it. I and some other people worked on setting things up with the academic senate. I guess the fair way to put it is getting the academic senate to the point where it wasn't going to be in the way. Much was done by Deborah Richardson, who became the first dean.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

She got the Bren money, which was essential in the conversion. And [she] did the negotiations over the departmentalization structure. Part of what we found in the 1990s was that a buy-in to this was finding a home for statistics.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

Which didn't have a home. It is now in the Bren School.

Aspray:

That's sort of fortuitous with the buildup of data science today, I guess.

King:

Oh yeah. That was the good way for things to work out.

Aspray:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

King:

A lot of the reason that things worked out like this was not because people were prescient about what would happen. There were some people who felt statistics was important. They might've thought that it would become more important. It needed a home. So, that was part of the deal.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay.

King:

I think it was fortuitous.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). You had some other management responsibilities while you were at Irvine, both in the management school itself and in the library. Could you talk about those?

King:

Well, mostly what happened in those cases was circumstantially determined by decisions made by other administrators. The jobs that I took in the management school (it had converted from the Graduate School of Administration to the Graduate School of Management), were basically attrition issues. People who had key positions left. Nature abhors a vacuum. People started to mobilize. The senior administration wanted to regain control. I was an agent of that. Essentially the same thing happened with the library.

Aspray:

I could see how you might feel comfortable taking on a management role in the management school. But what about in the library? Did you feel like you had the understanding of intellectual discipline of the practice and of the culture to handle those kinds of issues well?

King:

Not only did I not think that, I actively knew that that wasn't the case.

Aspray:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

King:

One of the things that I told the library people when I went over there was, we’ve got a conundrum. I don't know zip about running this place, but I do have all the power. And part of the problem was that they had disempowered themselves. So, this was an opportunity to transfer power to them and to figure out what we needed to do.

We did a lot of things that they have been reluctant to do, like getting rid of the card catalog, moving all online, et cetera. The library culture cares a lot about tradition. Things like that are not easy to do. It didn't help that some had written books on how getting rid of card catalogs is equivalent to book burning. We were burning books.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

One vignette: the library used to open on Saturdays, and early one Saturday morning, we had a big earthquake. As interim head of a library, I went into the library and asked, "What's the story?" And they said, "Well, there's like 200,000 volumes on the floor." On the fourth floor and so forth and so on. And I said, "Well, okay." And one of them said, "But what are we going to do? Because we have to open at 8:00am." I said it isn't that hard, took an eight and a half by 11 sheet of typing paper, wrote on it, "Closed because of earthquake," and taped it to the inside of the glass entry door. There were no complaints.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

The culture is much stronger now. That was a long time ago. They had become routinized. They didn't know how to handle exceptions. The earthquake was an exception. We put up the sign and people didn't come in and we didn't open and we got the books cleaned up and everything was fine.

Aspray:

I don't want to transition yet to Michigan, but let me ask this one question, which is, did that time managing the library have some bearing on your interest in or sense of your being a relevant candidate for the position at Michigan?

King:

I became active in the small circle of people who were interested in the kinds of changes underway at UCLA, Berkeley, University of Washington, Indiana, and other places. A subset of library and information science schools saw that this whole information issue was bigger than the traditions of library and information science. They started talking about what to do about that. I didn't interact much with the people who were doing that at Michigan. They were kind of out in front in doing it. One important thing is largely unsung: the role of the digital library projects funded by NSF, DARPA, et cetera. The one at Stanford led directly to the creation of Google. The one at Michigan led to the creation of the School of Information.

Aspray:

And what were the venues for these discussions from the various universities that were interested in this information movement?

King:

At the time it was just people talking to each other. There wasn't an organized structure to talk about these things and that's something that we created subsequently.

Aspray:

One of the reasons I asked this is that I know that Peter Freeman had become quite interested in these issues. And he started to informally meet with some of the people who had responsibility in the late 1990's.

King:

Peter, who I knew from Irvine (he was in ICS at Irvine, one of the software people that I got to know), had moved to Georgia Tech and become the Dean of the College of Computing there. He subsequently went on to be the Assistant Director of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) at NSF. He became very interested in this. I think the group was called the IT Deans.

Aspray:

Yes.

King:

This was the computer science departments that had become schools. UCI would be in there, Georgia Tech was in there, eventually Carnegie Mellon, other places were there.

King:

Another group was the iSchool movement. To the extent that it had an identity, it was made up primarily of library and information science programs that had expanded. There were some computing-oriented programs that had broken free and become colleges or schools in their own right. There were a few green-field enterprises put together for the purpose.

Aspray:

This organization that Peter ran sort of halfway through Computing Research Association at the time, didn't last very long in its form. It was only a transitional need. A more formal organization took place within CRA at some point when it was recognized that the information schools were a thing. And in fact, Bobby Schnabel took an active role in doing this and it became more formal. I didn't know as much about it as it went on, but there was also this separate effort to set up the iSchool Caucus. And eventually that became sort of the principal place for these schools as far as I can tell. Can you tell me about that story?

King:

I came to the University of Michigan to become Dean of the School of Information following the founding Dean of the School of Information, a guy named Dan Atkins. Atkins had one of the digital library grants that was a segue to the School of Information.

Atkins subsequently became the first outside-appointed director of the Office of Cyber Infrastructure at NSF. When I came to Michigan, Dan told me something I had already realized: we needed to create some sort of group to manage this evolution. These schools were a real thing and growing. It is hard for entities with origins in computer science to leave the computing field; it’s a centripetal enterprise. We probably needed two organizations.

Peter and Debra Richardson and myself, and a few other people used leverage that we had. Peter and I both had positions in the Computing Research Association (CRA) at that time. We leveraged the CRA's sponsorship to create the CRA IT Dean's Group. A fair number of deans of computing schools had no interest in joining with the iSchools, so they joined the IT Deans.

Many of the iSchools came out of library and information science schools. That was what we were, the School of Information at Michigan. We were on the iSchool side of things, even though for a period of time, the Michigan School of Information belonged to the IT Dean's Group. Two dimensions were important for the iSchool movement. One was comradery, all the stuff you would expect from science, the invisible college, et cetera. And part of it was just straight up resource politics.

For strong places like Michigan or Berkeley or UCLA or Indiana or Illinois, we could get together and have a group. And we could tell people, "Hey, we're a real thing, we have a group." For places that were on the way up, they were aspirationally looking to become like Berkeley or Michigan or Washington or whatever; and to be in the same group with us was very valuable to them. The iSchools emerged.

It's been many years now since I held any position of authority in CRA or the IT Deans or iSchools. But I thought all along that these organizations might be transitional. We had not done a good job of predicting anything that happened. The chances of us becoming good at predicting were pretty low. I didn't know what was going to happen.

Aspray:

Let me ask for clarification of what you said. Did you think that these organizations of the emergent iSchools was transitional or the actual iSchools themselves were transitional?

King:

Well, both: the likelihood of the former was higher than the likelihood of the latter.

Aspray:

Yes.

King:

The most amazing accomplishment of the iSchools, not the iSchools group, but the iSchools, was that they're not dead. They lived through a very difficult time. They lived through the great recession. Many of them are doing okay. In some cases, they've been merged with computing programs or other programs, in some cases different factions within them have taken over. But I see this as a part of normal evolution.

I would consider a defining issue that information and information technology is becoming more important. There's no going back.

If you look for people who know about this, you're going to find them either in computer science or the iSchools. You don't tend to find them in other areas. There are some in information systems in business schools, and some are in communications departments and so forth. But I think that they don't compare to the strength that is in the computing programs or in the iSchools.

I don't know what will happen with the iSchool movement. One thing you have to remember when you look at something like the iSchools movement is Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy: it doesn't matter what the purpose of something’s founding is, sooner or later it's overtaken by people who want to preserve it.

Aspray:

Okay, yeah. Do you want to make any more general comments about the iSchool movement before I return to your personal story about going to Michigan?

King:

The existential challenge of the iSchool movement is now what it's been all along, even though the circumstances change the flavor a little. That is the question of what is it that we're trying to do? I say this because, if you look at the tradition of higher education institutions, any enterprise that can't give a succinct and convincing description of what it's trying to do doesn't fare very well. There's a lot of heterogeneity in these iSchool programs. Individual programs become adept at talking about what they do in the context of the university that they're part of. It becomes difficult to have a unifying voice at the iSchools level across institutions.

Aspray:

That's very interesting. I think that's, from my experience, that's a very apt statement.

King:

We adopted as a modus operandi early in the creation of the iSchools movement the strategic value of ambiguity regarding what exactly a given program is doing. We did not consider it to be the place of the iSchools movement to tell any iSchool what to do. There was no accreditation. There were no standards. It was a remarkably libertarian enterprise.

Aspray:

Well, there's already an existing culture in computer science to rebel against accreditation anyway, right?

King:

Yeah. One of the things that Rob Kling once told me-- and this proved to be correct in my experience-- was that a common political belief among computer scientists is libertarian utopianism.

Aspray:

Okay.

King:

Many times I thought that can't be true, but it's remarkably true.

Aspray:

There are ways in which an organization like the iSchools Caucus could take a softer approach to these. For example, they could have model curricula or course descriptions or syllabi or something that they would be willing to share without imposing them on other people. Did that happen?

King:

There was a desire to have that kind of thing. For example, for reasons that go into the institutional history of these places, many of these programs that grew out of library and information science schools were graduate only, they didn't have undergraduate programs. Michigan, Washington and others have created information undergraduates.

There was interest among the iSchool community in hearing about these undergraduate programs. We had several meetings about that. I figured that, if that kind of discussion became codified, some people would want to establish an accreditation scheme.

People are well-intentioned, but some turn out to be control freaks. They want other people to do it their way. The community backs away from that if people didn't know how. Where would you even start?

This comment might ruffle some feathers, but I have been intrigued by the frequency with which people involved in the iSchools complain about the accreditation processes that they already have to go through, so why create a new accreditation scheme?

Aspray:

Sort of along these same lines, but a little bit earlier, I remember Peter Freeman telling me about the IT Dean's Group, that one of his reasons for wanting to do it was that a lot of these universities had experience being successful departments, but did not have experience being successful colleges and that he had been getting a steady stream of questions about how do you deal with the provost, or how do you deal with raising money for a college and so on? And that that was one of the reasons that he wanted to do this, it was a way of more effectively getting the message out about how to do this practical kind of work, of being a college.

King:

I think that's real. The library and information science programs in the 1960's crossed that threshold when they became independent schools, independent colleges.

Most computing programs were either parts of science schools or engineering schools. They didn't know how to be independent units. There was probably a lot of question about that. They knew how to deal with the Science Dean. They knew how to do with the Engineering Dean. They didn't know how to deal with a provost.

Aspray:

Yes. Okay.

Aspray:

This is a good point to transition after all of those years at Irvine, how is it that you decided it was time to go off and do something else?

King:

I didn't realize at the time, and of course I now have the benefit of hindsight, but I was coming to the point where I wanted a change of venue. I had been at Irvine a long time. I had been a student there. One of the things I discovered, and this came back to me here at Michigan, is a signal that you send to yourself that you need to pay attention to: when things that used to make you puzzled or intrigued, or want to look farther, just frustrate you. I felt that at UCI.

What were attractors became repellers. This kind of happened to me around the University of California as an institution, partly about the state of California as a place. And partly it was just a time of transition in my own life.

I came to Michigan in part because Michigan had a tradition of being an executive organization. The power of the faculty at the University of California is traditionally in the campus-wide academic senates. The power of the faculty at the University of Michigan is traditionally in the executive committees of the schools and colleges. The power is in the schools and colleges.

The central academic enterprise at Michigan historically is weaker than it is in the University of California. That changes the dynamics dramatically. One of the great accomplishments of the longest serving President of the University of Michigan-- a guy named James Angell-- was to get the professional schools at Michigan, (the business school, the engineering school, the medical school, et cetera), which were quite strong, to see themselves as part of the University of Michigan. This happened in the early 20th century.

Aspray:

Right. What were the specifics of the occasion for you to come to Michigan? Had you been out looking for jobs? Did somebody come to you?

King:

Well, both, I had looked at Berkeley, I had looked at Washington, I looked at a few other places. And frankly, the person who reached out to me here at the University of Michigan was a guy who I had known at Irvine many years ago, Michael Cohen. One day he called me up and said, "Hey, we're searching for a Dean." I told him was that I wasn't interested in being part of a Dean search. He took that and hung up. About 20 minutes later, I got a phone call from another person that I had known since he was a graduate student. He was on the dean search committee. He said, "I don't understand something, you say you don't want to be a part of a Dean search, but does that mean you don't want to be Dean?"

King:

I was taken by surprise, the question. I said, "Well, no, not really, but I just don't feel like going through the search process." And by one thing and another, I ended up here.

Aspray:

Yeah. Tell me about the place when you arrived.

King:

Well, Dan [Atkins] had done a really good job of mobilizing resources. He got a very substantial set of gifts from the WK Kellogg Foundation to transition the program. He had successfully managed the internal school level and university level politics. Dan’s accomplishment was ahead of its time. I later had a discussion with the then Dean of the largest unit in the university. She kept calling the school the School of Information Studies.

King:

I said, you can call it whatever you like, but the actual name is the School of Information. Her response, literally startled, was, “just information?” I said, yeah. She said everything in the university is about information. She was right, but I had the presence of mind to say the name was in place when I got here and I'm not changing it.

Aspray:

Yes. Exactly.

King:

Would Dan have been able to do what he did five years later? I don't know.

Aspray:

Had the unit been formed by the merger of separate units on campus?

King:

No, the school was formerly the School of Information and Library Studies. It was a free-standing school. It was one of the smallest schools and it did not have a very well understood mission or purpose. To many in the university it was invisible. Dan and some other people, including people in the school, decided that “information” was a good way to go, and it was easier to repurpose an existing school than create an entirely new school.

Aspray:

What were the challenges that you faced when you arrived?

King:

The biggest immediate problem was financial, but more the biggest problem overall was cultural. A culture of libraries, information science, and archives, was being expanded to include people from psychology and mathematics and computer science, so forth and so on. When I came, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that some of the people who were caught in this transition felt like they had been colonized, that other people with other ideas had moved in and taken their ancestral lands and put them on a reservation. They didn't like it.

Aspray:

Yes.

King:

A lot of listening had to take place, but by the time I arrived, the die was cast. We were going in this direction. I don't think it would have been possible to go back.

Aspray:

Were you consolidating this new vision of the school through a number of new hires to the faculty?

King:

I think the fairest way to say this is that my bias was to not pick people by area, but to pick people by how good they were, irrespective of area, very broadly speaking. So, we made decisions to hire people who just seemed to us to be extremely smart and able to think through these problems. Now that I think about it, most of them have left.

Aspray:

Who were some of these people that you hired?

King:

We hired Lada Adamic, now at Facebook. We hired Steve Jackson, now at Cornell. I don't, seven or eight people. The people who stayed are good, tool

Aspray:

Right, good people.

King:

Good people. Those who’ve left is just a matter of change. I did it one way. Martha Pollack succeeded me as Dean and did it her way. Jeff MacKie-Maison succeeded her and did it his way. Tom Finholt is Dean now, doing it his way. That's the way these things happen. Here's part of the change that's occurred. When I came to the school in 2000, I would say most of the faculty and most of the students had come out of the library and information science tradition, students were here to get their library master's degrees.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

Now, I don't think we have anybody on the tenure track faculty in the libraries' area, or if we do, they are not tenured yet.

Nobody talks about information science because I don't think most people know what that is. We still have an archives program, oriented toward digital preservation. We have a strong group in social media that we didn't even have back in 2000. We have more computer scientists. We built up strength in human-computer interaction beyond what we had when I came.

The bottom line comes down to this. If you try to draw a circle around everything that's affected by information technology, it's a humongous circle. I can't imagine any school like ours growing big enough to have strength in all of those areas. Even if we had the authorization to do so, it would be next to impossible to do logistically. Many computer science departments have found they can't hire junior people because the demand is so great in industry. When you're a Dean and somebody comes to you and says, I can't come to your school for less than I'm offered by industry. You can't pay that.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

It’s hard to pay a brand-new assistant professor more than you pay the most senior faculty member. That leads to tough conversations. The University of Michigan is a public institution, salaries are available on spreadsheets online.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

You can't do any of this in secret (not that you can maintain secrecy in any academic institution).

Aspray:

Are there other things you want to talk to me about regarding the School of Information or your activities in it before I move on to asking you about your central administrative management responsibilities?

King:

The same thing is going on now as in the eighties and the nineties with respect to the difficulty of forecasting. Our ability to forecast is really poor. Let me give you a concrete example. In 2014, there were all kinds of very authoritative predictions that by 2021 self-driving vehicles would be ubiquitous. That didn't happen. People get on kicks with these things. It's like management in the 1980s. You can write about that in 1958 but that doesn't mean you're right.

Aspray:

Okay. So, so tell me about these other central administrative management positions you've held at Michigan.

King:

Something I learned in organizational consulting on information technology is the defining question: how long has the chief financial officer been trying to take over IT? There are only two answers, it already happened, or, since as far back as anybody can remember. [When] I came in to the Michigan provost's office job, the CFO controlled part of IT, but while I was there took over IT. It's a long story, but it wasn't surprising. CFOs tend to be interested in cost containment. That's their primary focus.

It is of course a cost issue, but it's not only a cost issue. I came into the Provost’s Office to work on IT and was in that position for a while. Then I became the Vice Provost for Strategy and discovered that few higher education institutions want to talk about strategy but want to keep things the way they’ve been.

Aspray:

Okay.

King:

Staying what we were is awesome, nice work if you can get it. But I think things were changing. I left the central administration and came back to the school.

Aspray:

And as a plain old professor.

King:

Yeah, pretty much. I did have one administrative role, which was starting the bachelor's of science in Information program. But for the last few years I have been just a professor.

Aspray:

We've gone, an hour and 45 minutes, and I have about five additional topics to talk to you about. I have a feeling that we're going to drag at the end. I can see the energy levels already starting to drop off a little bit. Are you willing to do another session where we talk about research, policy work, corporate consulting, professional service, and any general kinds of remarks you want to make.

King:

Sure.

Aspray:

Okay. Then why don't, why don't we just offline schedule a second session for some time?

King:

Yeah. That's okay with me.

Aspray:

Okay. Are there things that we've been talking about for the last two hours that you want to just follow up on before we end today?

King:

The thing that's been weighing on my mind the most is that the issue is not just the leadership of academic enterprises. It's the production system that creates the leaders. Most of the people who hold high-level positions are pretty much the result of an era of higher education that will not obtain in the future. People who hold high-level positions in higher education are going to find themselves confronting problems for which they were not prepared.

Aspray:

What's an example?

King:

The expansion of American higher education following World War II started at the end of World War II, the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. That one Act tripled the size of higher education. Going back to my comment about size, this was a big deal. The University of Michigan campuses of Dearborn and Flint were created entirely to cope with the expansion from the GI Bill, two-year programs added to of community colleges to absorb the slack. A lot of what we now call the Regional Comprehensive Public Universities started that way. Portland State, for example. The period from 1945 to about 1985 was a period of tremendous expansion. Not surprisingly, the leaders of higher education sought out and secured the allegiance of powerful stakeholders who then supported the politics of the continuing expansion.

King:

That began to change around 1990. The downturn in the end of the Cold War meant the amount of money given to higher education was reduced. A lot of the money for higher education now comes from tuition. Higher education looks forward to a world of demanding stakeholders who are used to service at levels made possible by discretionary funding that didn't come from tuition. Students are starting to wake up and ask why they should pay for this.

Aspray:

Yes.

King:

Here's a good example. When I was in the Provost Office at the University of Michigan, I worked with something called the Public Goods Council that included the herbarium, the zoologic collection, the botanical gardens, et cetera. Most of these started as line items in the instruction or research budgets. Now nobody does comparative botany, comparative anatomy, or such things.

King:

They do different things. These enterprises collectively cost millions of dollars a year. They increasingly are paid for by the general fund, that is increasingly dependent on tuition.

Aspray:

Right.

King:

Higher education leaders are not prepared to tell powerful stakeholders no, but that's where we're headed.

Aspray:

Right. Okay. Well, that seems like a sharp note on which to close for today. Right?

King:

Well, it's probably a note on which there wouldn't be universal agreement.

Aspray:

Yeah. Indeed.

King:

Some people are much more bullish.

Aspray:

Right. All right. Well why don't we stop for today? And I'll send you an email about setting up another time.

King:

Okay. That's good. Sounds fun.