Named professorship at Watson College honors systems science pioneer
Luis Rocha, PhD '97, to start next fall as first George Klir Professor in Systems Science
In fall 2021, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Binghamton University will inaugurate the George Klir Professor in Systems Science.
The position, in honor of Klir’s groundbreaking work in the field of complex systems, is the first named professorship for the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science, and it will be part of the Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering.
Fittingly, the first to fill the professorship will be a former Klir student: Luis Rocha, PhD ’97.
“George Klir was a true pioneer in his discipline whose work evolved from systems modeling and simulation to intelligent systems and fuzzy logic,” said Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman. “He was the epitome of what a distinguished professor should be. It says a lot about the program that Dr. Klir and his successors have built that we are able to recruit a scholar of Dr. Rocha’s stature back to Binghamton to carry on the tradition that his mentor established.”
“I am personally delighted that Dr. Rocha will be joining us. He will be an excellent George Klir Professor of Systems Science,” added Watson College Dean Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari. “Distinguished Professor Klir was a true scholar and a superb academician. I believe Dr. Rocha will continue Dr. Klir’s legacy in the field of systems science.”
Rocha said he is excited by the prospect of returning to Binghamton: “It’s not a completely new place, but it’s very different from when I was there 20 years ago. When I visited last spring, there were many things that were the same and many things that were very different. The Watson School — now Watson College — has grown a lot since my time at the University.
“I am particularly excited by obvious opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration with such areas as health, biology, psychology and others, leveraging strengths in the department and Watson College.”
Over the past two decades, the SSIE Department has been a key part of that growth. With 26 faculty members, it is in the top 10 in terms of faculty size and research expenditures in systems science/industrial engineering departments in the United States, and it has the second-largest doctoral program. According to U.S. News & World Report, SSIE also has the highest-ranked graduate program at Binghamton.
“Our department is very excited that Dr. Rocha will be joining our team next fall,” said SSIE Department Chair Mohammad Khasawneh. “He is a highly accomplished scholar with national and international recognition.
“With an exceptional level of research activity, he will not only add depth to our successful and growing systems science program, but he also will help bring additional breadth in interdisciplinary applications such as computational cognitive systems and informatics.”
Klir, who passed away in 2016 at age 84, earned his PhD in computer science in his native country at the Czechoslovakia Academy of Sciences in 1964. After emigrating to the U.S. with his wife, Milena, he joined the then-SUNY Binghamton faculty in 1969 and became a pioneer in the emerging field of complex systems and systems science.
He served as the chair of Department of Systems Science (1978-94) and director of the Center for Intelligent Systems (1994-2000), attaining the rank of SUNY distinguished professor in 1984. Before his retirement in 2007, more than 30 doctoral students had studied with him.
Rocha, who hails from Portugal, discovered Klir and his work in the early 1990s as a master’s student attending an academic conference. The conference focus was knowledge networks such as the emerging World Wide Web. Rocha found the discussion of internet organization fascinating, and other attendees urged him to seek out Klir for his PhD degree.
“I decided I wanted to work in complex systems, but at the time there were only two programs in the states: Binghamton and Portland State,” Rocha said. “It’s not like I was looking around. I didn’t know Binghamton, but I knew George and other people who worked there, like [fellow SSIE professor] Howard Pattee.”
Because researchers were still formulating the discipline of systems science, Klir literally wrote the book on it — well, 23 books to be precise, including the seminal textbook Facets of Systems Science (1991). He also founded the International Journal of General Systems in 1974 and served as its editor-in-chief until 2014. In addition, he edited 10 volumes in the International Book Series on Systems Science and Engineering, sponsored by the International Federation on Systems Research.
In more than 300 research papers and other articles, Klir explored topics such as systems modeling, logic design, computer architecture, discrete mathematics, intelligent systems, soft computing, fuzzy set theory and fuzzy logic.
“By the time I came to Binghamton, all of it was very nicely packaged — there was a course with a book,” Rocha said. “A lot of the students in years prior pushed him to write it because it’s so transformative when you start understanding what systems thinking is.”
Klir and Pattee served as co-advisors for Rocha’s PhD dissertation, which examined complex systems through both Klir’s background in mathematics and Pattee’s role as a theoretical biologist.
“I continued what I had done as an undergraduate and expanded it greatly, from the math and other tools that George gave to me — uncertainty theory, information theory, the Dempster-Shafer theory of evidence,” Rocha said. “From Howard, I got a lot of the experimental knowledge about how biology and evolutionary systems work.”
Outside of the classroom, Klir lived an active life that included travel to five continents. At age 68, he climbed to the 18,192-foot summit of Mt. Kala Patthar in the Nepalese Himalayas, where he enjoyed a breathtaking view of nearby Mt. Everest. He also enjoyed swimming, playing piano, long walks in Binghamton University’s Nature Preserve, and attending classical and jazz concerts with Milena (with whom he celebrated 54 years of marriage).
“When we were at conferences in other cities, we’d sneak out to go hear jazz music,” Rocha said. “That’s one of the things I remember quite fondly. The other students liked music, but I knew jazz — not as much as George, but I could talk about the musicians and everything. It was something we bonded over.”
After leaving Binghamton, Rocha started post-doctoral research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and served as a permanent staff scientist there from 1998 to 2004. While there, he founded and led a Complex Systems Modeling Team and was part of the Santa Fe Institute research community.
He has spent the past 16 years at Indiana University, where he is currently a professor of informatics in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and the director of the NSF-NRT Interdisciplinary Training Program in Complex Networks and Systems.
It’s no surprise that Klir’s work has appeared on the curricula for many of Rocha’s courses over the years.
“In some ways, I’ve been able to influence other fields with ‘Binghamton thinking’ that now is more mainstream,” he said. “I feel like I was a little successful pushing those ideas into other areas, and now I’m very happy to bring it back to the place where it all started.”