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Former chemistry department chair to retire after almost 50 years at GW

Courtesy of Michael King
Michael King, the former chair of the chemistry department, will step down at the end of the academic year to focus on his own research.

Updated: Jan. 13, 2020 at 12:41 p.m.

Michael King always found joy in teaching others about math and science from a young age.

He has tutored many of his fellow students since elementary school and knew his future belonged with the study of chemistry and in pedagogy when he headed to college at the Illinois Institute of Technology. After receiving his doctorate from Harvard University, he started as an associate professor in the discipline at New York University in 1970 before he began at GW in 1973 – 2020 marks his 50th and final year of working in academia.

“I knew at a very early age that teaching was something that was natural and comfortable for me, and I knew I wanted to pursue it,” King said.

After serving as the chair of the chemistry department for more than 20 years, from 1996 to 2019, King will retire from teaching at the end of this academic year to focus on his own research. After retirement, King plans to travel with his wife, conduct more of his own research on organic chemistry in GW’s laboratories and work on behalf of the department to recruit graduate students.

“It was just an amazing experience, and I am really humbled to have been able to represent this department in a period of substantial growth,” King said. “For over the years, I have had amazing colleagues and I am so proud to be able to represent them in the forms of the University.”

King said he has been heavily involved with the organic chemistry program at the University throughout his career, teaching Organic Chemistry I and II and managing laboratory operations for the program.

“Chemistry was an area of science that came naturally to me from high school to now,” King said. “I always enjoyed it – I liked the manipulations, I enjoyed watching the chemistry unfold in the laboratory – so all of that sort of played out from my bachelor’s degree to my doctorate.”

He said he enjoyed the size of GW’s student body during the first couple decades of his career – smaller than the student body in recent years – because the smaller class sizes allowed him to get to know his students and talk with them “on a little bit more on a personal level.”

King said he felt his previous experiences in academia made him qualified to serve as chair of the department after his predecessor David Ramaker resigned. He said he put his name up for consideration to serve in the position, and his colleagues elected him to serve as the department’s leader.

“I was fortunate for my colleagues to have the confidence to select me to do that,” King said. “So one of the things I was particularly interested in doing was to improve the communication and collaboration of the department that would be of value to my colleagues.”

While serving as chair, he worked to increase opportunities for faculty in the department to work together and confer on projects, King said.

King’s colleagues said he consistently sought to provide support to students, faculty and the University throughout his tenure.

Former Provost Forrest Maltzman said he worked with King on several different initiatives and projects, including the design process for the Science and Engineering Hall and the creation of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Council.

He said King played a “leading role” working with the provost’s office and the Department of Operations to develop SEH’s design, adding that King deserves a large portion of the credit for the building’s completion, which Maltzman characterized as “inevitably the most complex building in the University.”

Maltzman said King has served as a mentor to “academic leaders” across the University and has demonstrated the value of collaboration and collegiality.

“While building a very successful and research-oriented chemistry department is an important contribution that Michael made, his impact is much broader and his legacy will be felt for a very long time across the University because of the lessons he informally taught his colleagues about being an academic leader and the example he set,” Maltzman said in an email.

Christopher Cahill, the current chair of the chemistry department, said King played an integral role in growing the department to its fullest potential by doubling the number of faculty in the department.

“He has been tirelessly flying the chemistry flag the entire time he has been here and, as a consequence, we have been able to grow and have our aspirations for research and education evolve accordingly,” Cahill said.

Cahill said one of his fondest memories of King was watching him hold office hours in a hallway in SEH using the building’s whiteboard walls. He said a crowd always showed up to talk to King, even on a Friday afternoon.

“He was sort of beloved because he has taught organic chemistry this whole time and organic chemistry has, in many respects, an undeserved reputation of being an incredibly difficult and sometimes ‘weed-out’ course,” Cahill said. “But Michael King has never taught this as a weed-out course and has always been committed to his students’ success.”

LaKeisha McClary, an assistant professor of chemistry, said she has seen King work “tirelessly” to support faculty members’ individual growth as well as the department’s collective growth throughout her seven years working with him.

“I appreciate a lot about Dr. King, but perhaps what resonates most with me is that he always considered different perspectives within the department and sought to do what was best for us – our graduate students and chemistry majors and minors, our staff and our faculty,” she said in an email.

This post has been updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet originally reported that King taught General Chemistry I and II at GW. He taught Organic Chemistry I and II. We regret this error.

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