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John Leslie King, School of Information professor and former dean, retires

John King headshot

Monday, 08/09/2021

After an illustrious career, John L. King, the William Warner Bishop Collegiate Professor of Information and former dean at the University of Michigan School of Information, retired from active faculty status on May 31, 2021. The Board of Regents officially granted Professor King emeritus status at their May, 2021 meeting.

King’s research focused on the relationship between technical change and social change, in particular on information technologies and social institutions. He researched government, education, healthcare, transport, finance, electric power utilities and common carrier communications. King published 12 books and more than 150 papers from his research. In recognition of his leadership in research and field development, he was named a fellow of the Association for Information Systems in 2005 and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007. 

King’s contributions were also recognized internationally. In 2005, he was named a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies by the Deutsche Fulbright Kommission, the German arm of the international Fulbright Scholars program, and in 2009 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in economics by the Copenhagen Business School.

His most cited research continues to be “Cost-Benefit Analysis in Information Systems Development and Operation” published in the Association for Computing Machinery Journal Computing Surveys in 1978. It was a revolutionary look at the effectiveness of enormous investments being made in the information technology economy. 

In 2006, King was appointed vice provost for academic information in the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2009, he was appointed vice provost for strategy. He returned to UMSI full-time in 2011 and was the first director of the Bachelor of Science in Information (BSI) program.   

While at the school, he continued his research into the effects of computers on the automotive world and dedicated time to understanding autonomous vehicles. One of his most compelling research initiatives occurred in 2011 when King traveled to Antarctica with the National Research Council to study the continent’s information infrastructure. King liked to think of Antarctica as the “Republic of Science,” noting the difficulty of going to the continent without scientific involvement. He described the massive output of scientific data on the continent as tied to his interest in information architecture.

“Antarctica is data-rich in terms of generation but they are data-poor in terms of conductivity,” King said. “The information infrastructure of Antarctica is very strange. There is no internet, so most information or data gets transferred off of Antarctica either on removable hard drives or USB drives. The only communication infrastructure that they have available is satellites.”

The typewriter that started it all

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, King and his five siblings moved across the West Coast growing up due to his father’s career in the army reserves. By the time King was in high school, his family had settled in Southern California.

King pursued a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from the University of California Irvine and graduated in 1972. He stayed at Irvine for both his master’s and his PhD in management, and graduated with his doctorate in 1977.

“I was always interested in the sciences and I got interested in computers, of all things through physical rehabilitation,” King said. 

During his studies, King met a physician in charge of a rehabilitation clinic who invited him to come to an occupational technology rehabilitation fair. It was there that King encountered a “very bored person” from IBM showing their latest occupational device, the Magnetic Tape Selectric typewriter. King had taken typing in high school and asked the IBM representative if he could try the device. He ended up playing with it for nearly 30 minutes.

“I realized that technology was going to alter offices extensively,” he shared. “After the fair, I got into shared logic calculators and came in the information technology door through what was at the time called office automation. I was very interested in computers applied to office tasks.”

As a master’s student, King worked on a literature review about how computers affect organizations and how to manage information technology within organizations.

King knew he wanted to conduct research but views his path in academia as somewhat coincidental despite all of his hard work.

“To be completely honest about it, the reason that I went into the PhD program was because I was standing in line to use the card reader on a computer back when you used punch cards,” King laughed. 

A friend in the PhD management program was standing in front of him and encouraged him to apply. His friend talked about how much he enjoyed both his work and lifestyle.

“I had never thought of faculty as having lives, much less lifestyles,” King admitted.

As a PhD student, King worked with faculty and students to lead a nationwide charge on studying the effects of computerization on organizations. His dissertation interrogated policy for the management of computing and investigated questions related to the cost-benefit analysis of computing technology investment.

After graduation, King joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine as professor of information and computer science and management. He also served as visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Nanyang Technological University.

“I stayed in the policy for computing management area for about six or seven years, but then I began to shift toward this relationship between technical change and social change,” King said. “I became very interested in institutionalized production and started looking at sectors of production, like public utilities and communications infrastructure and freight logistics supply chain management.”

The UMSI years

King arrived as a professor and dean in 2000 after spending nearly 35 years in Southern California. Then and now, he was attracted to the talent at the school and UMSI’s roots in the library tradition.

“The quality of the faculty at the School of Information is what really sets it apart,” King noted.

He cites current and former faculty Michael Cohen, George Furnas, Margaret Hedstrom and Daniel Atkins as particular inspirations to his work.

At UMSI, King developed and taught the popular course SI 523 Information and Control until his retirement. The course was designed to prepare students for their lives outside of the classroom. King drew on his vast experience in management and viewed the course as a mix of MBA and technological material. He had learned the value of a course on information and organizations. Recruiters said his students consistently became project managers faster than others. 

“I would hear from organizations like Microsoft and Oracle, all of them wanted to hire my students,” King remembered. He applied that knowledge to SI 523.


King said the most rewarding part of his prolific academic career was getting to connect with his students and help them work through intellectually challenging material. He spoke about the magic of a student coming to him for help with a difficult concept and witnessing the look of recognition that would cross their faces as they understood it. Knowing he played a part in relaying information that students would carry with them for the rest of their lives was important to him.

“Seeing change take place with students was compelling and very positive. Exposing them to new points of view is a big deal and one of the things that I tried to do throughout my career,” he said.

One of King’s greatest legacies among the students and community who had the privilege of working with him was his openness to change.

“Technology was changing a lot during my time at the School of Information,” said King. “When I first arrived at UMSI, Google had just been formed and smartphones and social media didn’t exist. I’ve gotten to really investigate the consequences of this technology. I began witnessing the research I had been doing earlier in my career come true.”

King was excited by technological transition and embraced it in his work. Now, he’s exploring a new transition, leaving the academic world he has called home for decades. King is looking forward to his next chapter and facing its newness with open arms.

- Kate Cammell, Writer UMSI