Stepping down as president, Shirley Jackson reflects on sweeping changes at RPI

RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson speaks during a naming ceremony for the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies in her honor on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Troy.

RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson speaks during a naming ceremony for the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies in her honor on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Troy.

TROY — Shirley Ann Jackson will retire as RPI president June 30, ending a hugely influential run as the second-longest-tenured leader of the university in its 198-year history.

As a physicist who made her way into a male-dominated field starting in the 1960s, she already had a number of “firsts” attached to her name when she became the first Black woman to head a major U.S. research university in 1999.

Jackson proceeded to lead a comprehensive overhaul of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that changed many aspects of the university substantially or even fundamentally, from the structures on its Troy campus to the school’s financial endowment to its partnerships with the community and the rest of the world.

The sweeping changes and the determined manner with which she pursued them drew periodic criticism but did not deter her at the time, nor sow the seeds for regret now.

The RPI she’s leaving is far stronger and far better able to meet its mission than the one she took over 23 years ago, Jackson says.  

On July 1, she will turn the reins over to Martin Schmidt, a 1981 graduate of RPI who currently is the provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jackson this week spoke with The Daily Gazette about her time leading the Capital Region’s largest private school, 446 faculty members, 1,217 other employees and more than 6,800 students.

Jackson grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied particle physics at MIT and became the first Black woman to earn a doctorate at the school. 

Her private industry work for Bell Labs in New Jersey transitioned to college faculty and government advisory roles, and ultimately to the chairmanship of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999.

An array of honors and awards bestowed along the way includes more than 50 honorary degrees and seats on the boards of major corporations, organizations and institutions.

Jackson said the second half of her career still draws on the knowledge she worked so hard to develop in the first half, and said the transition from working scientist to administrator and leader was not as big a leap as it seems on paper.

“I would argue that for me and maybe for others it’s a natural evolution,” she said. “I haven’t moved so far away as you might think from my original scientific background.”

The NRC, she said, is filled with scientists and engineers as well as lawyers.

“It really had to do with the marriage of science and technology to public policy in arenas that related to nuclear power, nuclear nonproliferation, the use of nuclear materials in medicine and industry. It drew on everything I had done up to that point,” Jackson said.

“You go from doing it yourself to enabling others, and the first enablement came when I became a professor at Rutgers. It’s an evolution.”

Jackson’s appointment as RPI president was another change that was evolutionary rather than abrupt, given the central role of science and technology in the new position and her need to make a smooth-running balance of what she calls the Four P’s: people, programs, platforms and partnerships.

RPI, she said, was a great institution with a great legacy that had fallen into a malaise in 1999, having had five presidents in the previous 15 years.

“When there’s a lot of turnover there can also be drift, and some of that drift can be downward,” Jackson said. “There was a lot that needed to happen.”

She didn’t come in with a checklist of individual projects. 

“I knew we would need a holistic plan, and the plan had to cover the key things that the university was about,” Jackson said.

There were five broad areas of focus: residential undergraduate education; research and graduate education; entrepreneurship and intellectual property exploitation; key enabling details such as the administrative process and the physical campus; and the “Rensselaer Community,” which is the college itself, its neighborhood, the region, its alumni and its allies, collaborators and donors.

Some of the changes and achievements seen at RPI since 1999:

  • A rolling comprehensive update of every residential building;
  • Creation of apartments for live-in deans;
  • Attraction of donations worth over $2 billion;
  • Growth of the endowment from $400 million to more than $1 billion;
  • Creation of 25 new academic degree programs;
  • Installation of the most powerful supercomputer at any private U.S. university;
  • Revisions to the core curriculum;
  • New initiatives including an extensive data monitoring and analysis project in the waters of Lake George;
  • Deposits in a badly underfunded pension fund;
  • Major construction projects including the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (to which Jackson’s name was added recently) and the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.

Jackson did not always have uniform support for these initiatives. She encountered pushback in some cases and was sometimes criticized as imperious. In her first decade, the faculty voted narrowly against a message of no-confidence in her.

She attributes these things more to fear of change rather than dislike of her race or gender.

“The board because of things I had done before hired me as a change agent,” Jackson said.

A new performing arts center or a new focus on artificial intelligence were visible and bold moves, but behind the scenes were equally important but less noticeable changes in administration, finance and personnel management that roiled up the campus community.

“I would say that because of all the discontinuity and turnover in leadership, the institute [had become] much more inwardly focused,” Jackson said. “And you have someone coming along saying ‘We’ve got to be world-class, we’ve got to be out there,’ that’s uncomfortable for some people.

“How much of it might have been exacerbated by gender or race, you probably have more of a point of view about that than I do, because I tend to stay goal-focused so I don’t go there as the reason. Others have suggested various things but I try to stay focused on what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Fate also amplified the baseline challenge of remaking the school, dotting Jackson’s tenure with a series of crises great and small. COVID was only the last and worst.

“I would not have expected to spend my last two years as president managing the university through a global pandemic. And that’s been very challenging,” she said.

The dot-com bust and Great Recession threw off RPI’s finances; 9/11 affected foreign enrollment; state and federal regulations and laws are more numerous and complex than in 1999 and don’t always match; intellectual property theft is a greater threat now.

“All of these things are making the environment ever more complex but universities are always in a way at the point of the spear because we’re educating the next generation of people, the next generation of leaders and those who will drive change,” Jackson said.

“So everything that society is about and some ways what the global society is about all come to fruition here.”

When Jackson retires, she and husband Morris Washington, a retired RPI physics professor, will split their time between homes in the Adirondacks and Florida. 

She’ll continue in advisory roles with the federal government in national security, she’ll be a senior fellow at the Belter Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, and she will continue to serve on a couple of boards of directors, including the Nature Conservancy.

Jackson, who will turn 76 this summer, would also like to do some writing about technology and public policy, and possibly also something along the lines of a memoir.

“Does that sound like retirement?” she asked with a laugh.

“I haven’t exactly had a lot of time — not that I’m one who relaxes — to do some things. But that’s what retirement’s about.

“I’m going on to do other things, just with somewhat less intensity.”
More remains to be done at RPI, but not by her, Jackson said.

“There’s always things that are undone. That’s why I’m excited for Marty coming in.

“I think some people will find him more comfortable because he is an alum, and he [has] a different personality than mine. I think he’s a very smart guy, very careful, and he has a good heart.

“I like to believe I’ve left him a great platform to build from.”

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