A Conversation with ΦBK Member Richard MacKinnon

By Kevin Wang

In an increasingly specialized world, where we tend to focus on digging deeper at the expense of seeing farther, is there a purpose to a broad education in the liberal arts? This question likely irks few more than it does scientists. Biologists, engineers, chemists, and computer scientists all feel the pressure to strap on the blinders as an exponentially intensifying barrage of new information draws their curiosity deeper into the total exploration of the singular. One voice, however, offers testament that another path is within reach.

ΦBK member Richard “Dick” MacKinnon has had a career defined as much by its serendipity as by its heterogeneity. In 1956, MacKinnon enrolled as an undergraduate at Yale University. During his first year, he undertook a rigorous “great books” program for freshmen called Directed Studies, commonly shortened to “DS” in the commiserative conversations of its students. As demanding as the program was, MacKinnon has no regrets: “It felt like we were in a marine boot camp. We were beaten to a pulp. But as things turned out, it was wonderful.”

Over the next four years, MacKinnon would take the arduous road of a history honors program that few others dared traverse. His toil and profound attention to his studies in history were rewarded by election to Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. To him, this milestone was more than a bullet point on a resume. “I was marked for life as someone separated from the rest of the world. It separated those who had coasted through and those who had worked their tails off,” MacKinnon says. In the years to follow, MacKinnon would continue to distinguish himself by nurturing his tradition of working hard and fearing little.

After graduating magna cum laude from Yale in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in history, he was faced with the choice of continuing as an academic or taking a leap into the unknown. As a firm believer in rewarding good work with good returns, he chose the latter. “I saw the exploitation of younger faculty, and I realized academia was not a meritocracy. I decided not to run the maze of the tenure track,” MacKinnon says. Disillusioned with academia, he decided to pursue the art of business instead, and in 1962 he earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.

As a fresh business graduate with a broad humanities background, MacKinnon’s next step was anything but expected. In 1962 he joined the computer hardware behemoth IBM, where he was to spend the next thirty years, serving over half of this time as a research director. “When I first applied for the job they asked me, ‘What makes you think you’re qualified?’” he recalls. “I told them, ‘Well I’ll just have to see.’” 

Thirteen years after joining the company, MacKinnon was appointed as the only non-PhD research director of IBM’s Cambridge Scientific Center on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent eighteen years spearheading the development of personal computers and virtual machines. MIT and Boston University then each invited him to teach a computer science course on their campuses. In his course, MacKinnon found an opportunity to go back to his roots in history, which were now in soil that had become all too barren. “There’s no interest in history nowadays,” he says, referring to the past two decades. “Computer scientists were reinventing the wheel with each new solution, and it was because they were not in touch with history.”

As a professor, MacKinnon saw the changing face of education. He realized students had come to see higher education simply as “a ticket punch,” and that even PhD programs were viewed as passing through a toll booth. Two years ago, the Delta of Maine Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Maine invited him to speak at their induction ceremony. Though the trip up to the Pine Tree State was a long one, MacKinnon found it impossible to decline the invitation, which he saw more as an opportunity. “I wanted to let them know that they were embarking on the first major experience of honor in their life,” he says, “but to also tell them that the key is to not know that and to do something useful in the world.”

MacKinnon stands as an embodiment of his own advice. In 1981, he went to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary for an operation. After the operation, moved by gratitude, he asked the infirmary president if there was any way he could help the institution. The president told him no. A few months later, MacKinnon was delivering a talk at the Harvard Club in Boston, where he met a woman whose husband was an eye surgeon at the infirmary. She introduced MacKinnon to the infirmary’s recently elected president, and in 1984 the president appointed him as a director of the Infirmary. MacKinnon would continue his service in the healthcare sector, which he describes as “a hobby,” for many more years. In 1989 MacKinnon was invited by Massachusetts General Hospital to join its radiation oncology oversight committee, where plans were underway to establish America’s second proton beam radiation treatment center. He himself received treatment there for prostate cancer in 2009 and remains active on the committee.

MacKinnon credits much of his experience in life to the communication skills he developed as an undergraduate. “At Yale, I learned how to write, how to communicate,” he says. In an interview with Penske Corporation, the transportation services company, he remembers Roger Penske’s words as he offered MacKinnon the job of interim Chief Information Officer on the spot: “You’re the only one I’ve interviewed who speaks English to me!”

Good communication skills, MacKinnon argues, are the key to building meaningful lifelong relationships. “They helped me to distinguish the sheep from the goats, to know who to know and who to avoid,” he says. To him, friends are an essential element of a fulfilling life, particularly for their potential as people to reach out to for advice and aid.

MacKinnon is fortunate to share a bloodline with one of these people. MacKinnon’s twin brother Bill attended Yale and Harvard with him and was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Though their career paths diverged after business school, their roads intersected in 1992 when MacKinnon joined his twin’s consulting firm, MacKinnon Associates. “We had our annual meeting in a phone booth,” he says with a chuckle. This joint consulting venture would be the final leg of MacKinnon’s professional journey. He retired completely in 2002.

Reflecting on a life of challenges and novelty at every turn, MacKinnon encourages his younger companions – a group I am now proud to call myself part of – to take a few pieces of advice to heart: “For areas you shy away from, say ‘Why not?’ The more your antennae sweep the horizon, the farther you’ll see. But you have to do far more than raise your hand and vote yes. Do your homework. Accomplish something.”

Though his life has been a mosaic of pursuits ranging from computer science to healthcare, his most cherished hobby remains history. He finds it important to have hobbies in life, to resist defining one’s life with one’s profession. MacKinnon is currently studying World War II with a special emphasis on the American Navy. He is 78.

As MacKinnon closed his saga, and as I readjusted the phone that had been tucked under my craned neck for the past hour, one question still burned fervently in my mind. “Were you ever daunted by all the uncertainty, all the novelty, all the challenges?” I asked.

A brief pause.

“Daunted? Only for a millisecond.”

Kevin Wang is a senior at Yale University majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He was elected to ΦBK as a junior and is currently serving as vice-president of the Yale Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Yale is home to the Alpha of Connecticut Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1780. 

Follow Kevin on Twitter @kkwang23.