A conversation with John Kelly III '76: Union's new chairman of the board
John E. Kelly III ’76 is senior vice president, solutions portfolio and research, at IBM. He is chairman of the Board of Governors of the IBM Academy of Technology, a member of the Board and past chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Association, a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a member of the Board of the New York Academy of Sciences. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Kelly joined IBM in 1980, after earning a Master of Science degree in physics and a Doctorate in materials engineering, both from the RPI.
What is your top priority as the new chairman?
As chairman, my top priority is to work with the entire Board of Trustees and the president and administration of the College to ensure the long-term strength of Union.
In order to do this, we must ensure that we attract and invest the necessary human and financial resources to be a leader in a highly competitive higher education market.
Thanks to all the stakeholders in Union, we have an excellent base upon which to build.
What do you see as Union’s strengths as a player in the regional/national scene?
Union has many strengths, including our outstanding faculty, administration and staff, our beautiful campus, and many supporters. In the end though, it comes down to the quality and diversity of our students, and the differentiated education that we provide.
We need to continually leverage our strengths in combining liberal arts and engineering, and our geographic location, to provide unique opportunities for students.
What is your assessment of the state of Union? Academically, financially etc.?
I believe that Union is in a very solid position. That said, we must understand that higher education is facing many challenges due to demographics, cost, technology and the like. Recognizing this, we have a very strong strategic plan that we are implementing.
What do you expect to be the College’s project priorities during the next four years?
The president, working with our board, has laid out a set of project priorities that support our strategic plan. These projects require substantial financial investment and time to complete. We are discussing several aging facilities such as dining, housing, the arts, and Science and Engineering.
What inspired you to become more involved with your alma mater over the years?
Union is a unique institution and we occupy a special place in higher education. Quite frankly, we are very distinctive. I have come to realize what this singular education has meant to my success in life and my career. I simply felt that I must give back and help ensure that this college prospers and is available for generations to come.
Why did you and your wife, Helen-Jo, support the Kelly Adirondack Center?
I was lucky enough to have the Adirondacks close by growing up in the Capital District. I have also felt that Union needs to take more advantage of our location near the Adirondacks, the capital, and many high tech corporations. When the opportunity arose for the College to acquire the center, it was a perfect opportunity for us to step up and make it happen. We are thrilled to see the center’s programs expanding, and so many students, faculty, and neighbors benefiting from it.
Tell us about your time as a student. Do any particular experiences stand out as the most formative or memorable?
Like so many students, my experience at Union was incredible. As a physics major, I naturally took a lot of science and math, but two things stood out for me. First, I was able to take world-class liberal arts classes in addition to all the science and math. I particularly enjoyed political science and psychology. This part of my education was so foundational to developing my thinking and handling of complex problems to this day. Secondly, the direct relationships with faculty were critical. It allowed me to do research and be responsible for complex scientific equipment, which helped prepare me for graduate school and my career. This is very rare at the undergraduate level.
What did you write your thesis on?
We were not asked to write a thesis in the mid ‘70’s at Union. I did do about a year and a half of lab and research work in X-ray fluorescence ( X-rays that are generated when a material is bombarded with an energetic beam). In my case, we had received a particle accelerator from GE that needed rebuilding, and my advisor, Professor Dennis Pilcher, had acquired a state-of-the-art detector. I had the unique opportunity to assemble and perform research with this advanced capability. It turned out to be directly relevant to my graduate studies and first job at IBM.
Do you have a favorite Union mentor or historical Union hero?
There were so many faculty and students that left their imprint on me at Union. I would call out my physics advisor, Professor E. Pilcher, as being very special. He was a brilliant, kind, gentle man, who took this young student under his wing and taught me so much. He not only taught me physics and how to work in a lab doing research, but he taught me how to use scientific methods to explore nature. Perhaps most importantly though, he taught me how integrate these lessons in to my life.
What have you read lately?
Not surprisingly, most of what I read these days are scientific articles and books. I have become particularly interested in the future of “Cognitive Computing,” or what some may call Artificial Intelligence (AI). While we will never be able to replicate the amazing human brain, I firmly believe that we can build machines to supplement our human intelligence. Think of what this could mean to such fields as healthcare, where doctors are being swamped with more discoveries and data (such as genomic data) than they can possibly make sense of, much less act on. This technology will help transform healthcare, providing better outcomes at lower cost.
When you’re not working, what do you like to do? Favorite music, movie, book etc.?
When I’m not working, it’s all about my family. I have a wonderful wife of 39 years, three fantastic sons, and recently a grandson. We like to enjoy sailing and just spending time together.