College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Spring 2001

SFSU says 'bon voyage' to James Kelly
By Matt Itelson

Approachable. Candid. Decisive. Engaging. Fair-minded. Highly respected. Intelligent. Leader. Personable. Sincere. Visionary. Witty.
    These are just a handful of the words used by SFSU faculty and administrators to describe qualities of College of Science and Engineering Dean James Kelley, who is retiring in October.
    “Jim Kelley puts the lie to the old C.P. Snow notion of the two cultures — an articulate, sophisticated intellectual, he is as much at home in the world of letters as the halls of science,” says SFSU President Robert Corrigan. “I will miss his wit and charm and his uncanny ability to explain scientific issues in a language even I can understand.”
    From the moment Kelley joined SFSU as dean in 1975, he has actively encouraged faculty to pursue grants for research, pushed for recruitment of a diverse faculty, established new facilities such as the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (RTC), published his own research in oceanography and geology, taught classes, mentored fellow faculty in the College, and much more.
    During his 26-year tenure, the College has increased annual external funding for research from $100,000 upon his arrival as dean to $22 million today, which he says is one of his two greatest accomplishments as dean. That $22 million represents 60 percent of the College’s budget. In addition, he emphasizes that all of the research is conducted to benefit students as well as faculty.
    Daniel Buttlaire, associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering, credits Kelley for this focus.
“The high-quality education that students obtain in the College is a direct result of Dean Kelley’s successful leadership in hiring high-quality faculty and emphasizing the importance of meaningful student participation in faculty-supervised research,” he says.
    “Many of our faculty are now leading researchers in their fields and outstanding educators who actively involve students in their research and teach students how to solve real-world problems.”
    Kelley says that his other top accomplishment has been ensuring that the College’s faculty reflect its diverse student body. For example, he noted that five of the 40 faculty members in biology are Latinos.
    “We’ve done better than any other university I know of in our field in bringing in our Latino faculty in biology,” he says. “When I read their retention and promotion documents, there are letters from Latino students on how important these role models are to them.”
    Biology Professor Leticia Marquez-Magana echoes this sentiment strongly.
    “I have known individuals committed to increasing the number of minority scientists, but it is rare to find someone who harbors this passion and who has the power to act on this conviction. James Kelley is such an individual,” she says. “As dean, he has changed the face of science at SFSU.”
    And many in the College are also going to miss Kelley’s famous Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day parties. At his final St. Patrick's Day party last month, he celebrated the rich history of immigration to the United States by acknowledging members of the College’s faculty and staff.
    “To me, St. Patrick’s Day is not to celebrate the Irish, but to celebrate all immigrants who have made (the United States) what it is today,” he says.
    The diversity of SFSU and the entire Bay Area are a constant reminder to Kelley of a crucial reason why he chose to come here from the University of Washington. It is also what he will miss the most about SFSU.
    “On this campus, I learn something every day. Not necessarily about oceanography, but about life,” he says.
Kelley will also miss teaching his course “John Steinbeck and ‘Doc’ Ricketts: Literature and the Sea,” which he has been doing for 20 years. The course is based on the close relationship between Steinbeck and the pioneer environmentalist and Monterey-based marine biologist.
    Throughout the College, other faculty members and administrators add to the list of Kelley’s accomplishments. “He has shown an unfaltering commitment to the Romberg Tiburon Center,” says Alissa Arp, director of the RTC.
    Geoff Marcy, former SFSU physics and astronomy professor and CSU distinguished professor, is grateful to Kelley for offering start-up funds in 1986 to launch Marcy’s search for planets. Ten years later, Marcy and his team received worldwide acclaim for discovering the first extra-solar planets.
    “Were it not for Dean Kelley’s stewardship of resources for SFSU science, we humans might still be ignorant about the uniqueness of our solar system,” says Marcy, who is now at UC Berkeley.
    Jim Orenberg, chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry, notes Kelley’s policy of providing faculty with additional assigned time to focus on research projects that have been awarded external grants. He says this is just one example of Kelley's leadership style that has led to the College’s success.
    “The best word I can think of to describe Jim is enlightened,” Orenberg adds. “He has trust, faith and confidence in the chairs, and faculty in general. That style has been one of the main reasons for the College’s growth and success under his tutelage.”
    Will Denetclaw, who joined the SFSU biology faculty this year, has been immediately impressed with the comfortable work environment Kelley creates for the College’s faculty and staff.
    “He is very open and friendly. I don’t have to walk on eggshells with the higher-ranking members of the College,” he says.
    Ray Pestrong, a longtime SFSU geology professor, credits Kelley for “rolling up his sleeves and digging ditches to get the Sierra Nevada Field Campus operational,” maintaining a strong connection with the California Academy of Sciences and supporting the Geosciences Department.
    “His support and encouragement at every stage of the teaching and learning process will be missed,” he says. “He leaves large boots to fill, but his imprint will always be a part of this institution.”
    “Jim is well-respected by administrators and known as being a strong, effective leader and communicator,” says Dean of Faculty Affairs Paul Barnes, recalling information from one of Kelley’s administrative reviews.
Barnes, who joined the biology faculty in 1973, has always admired Kelley — who is also a close friend — for his decision-making and problem-solving abilities.
    “It was his mentoring that helped me become the dean of faculty affairs, in terms of sizing up problems,” he says. “He is very decisive in his operations, doesn’t micromanage and finds the best people to implement strategies.”
    Raised in Laguna Beach, Kelley has been drawn toward the ocean ever since he first encountered it at 6 months old. After serving as a cabin boy on a schooner at age 13, “I knew where I wanted to be for the rest of my life,” he says.
    When Kelley retires, he will finally be able to travel the world by sea full time, often for months at a time. During his vacations for the last 16 years, he has led voyages on the open sea for Lindblad Expeditions. This winter, he will travel to such destinations as the British Isles, Spain, Morocco, Brazil, the Falkland Islands and even Antarctica. Utilizing his expertise, he leads hikes and gives lectures on the oceanography, geology, natural history and exploration history of each destination on the voyages. His son Jason, an SFSU alumnus in geology, also leads expeditions for Lindblad.
    In conducting his research on coastal upwelling, Kelley was one of the first oceanographers to employ advanced technology at sea to collect and analyze oceanographic data. He also served as president of the California Academy of Sciences from 1985 to 1993. Last year, the academy awarded him with the Fellows’ Medal — its highest honor — for his ground-breaking work and his role as dean.
    “Dr. Kelley continues to nurture scientific excellence and expand local scientific opportunities, and he has been instrumental in recruiting to SF State some of the finest scientists in the country, many of whom have been elected lifetime Academy Fellows,” said Dave Kavanaugh, director of research at the California Academy of Sciences.
    Yet Kelley’s legacy will surely include memories of his leadership style, warm personality and sincerity as well.
    “He may be a man of few words, but has the utmost integrity,” Arp says. “If Jim Kelley tells you something, it will be true forever.”

"This article originally appeared in the April 2001 issue of First Monday, SFSU's monthly newsletter for faculty and staff."

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on July 16, 2001