Professor Shirley Ann Jackson, MIT graduate and life member of the Corporation, has been named the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, effective July 1, 1999.
"Professor Jackson will be a truly outstanding university president," said MIT President Charles M. Vest, who described her as one of a handful of close personal advisors. "That calm, reasoned voice on the other end of the telephone has been a source of strength and wisdom for me."
Professor Jackson, 52, is chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She received the SB (1968) and PhD (1973) in physics from MIT -- the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT and the first African-American woman in the country to receive a doctorate in physics. She will also be the first African-American woman to head one of the nation's top technological universities.
Professor Jackson describes herself as a "change agent." While an undergraduate at MIT, she was a founder of the Black Students Association and helped increase the number of African Americans entering the Institute from two to 57 in just one year.
Looking ahead to the challenges of leading RPI, Professor Jackson commented, "Leadership, in this context, must begin with setting an example -- an example of hard work, creative thinking, and commitment to ideals and mission.
"To be effective, a leader must also be able to motivate those she leads, to build consensus among diverse stakeholders, and to make and take responsibility for difficult decisions while valuing all members of the community. And finally, at this time in history, a leader must have and must be able to instill in others a global consciousness, an awareness of how the decisions we make and the direction we take can be of benefit not only to our immediate society but to humankind worldwide."
Jerome I. Friedman, Institute Professor and 1990 Nobel laureate in physics, taught Professor Jackson when she was a sophomore at MIT.
"Shirley Jackson will provide outstanding leadership and vision as president of RPI. She is a remarkable physicist as well as a remarkable person who has made significant contributions to industry, academia and government," he said.
Paul Gray, president emeritus (1980-90) and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has known Professor Jackson since 1968, when they participated in the Task Force on Educational Opportunity.
"It was apparent from her first years at MIT as an undergraduate that Professor Jackson is a person of extraordinary qualities of character and intellect.
"Her ability to analyze complex issues, to introduce important ideas, and to exercise sound judgement were extraordinary. The tenfold increase in minority student enrollment in the '70s is a testament to her creative influence. She will be a very strong leader for RPI -- an important science and technology based university -- just as she has been for MIT in her several roles here, including that of life trustee," said Professor Gray.
Professor Jackson has been chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since 1995. She was the first African-American woman to serve in that role.
The chairman is the principal executive officer and official spokesperson for the NRC. Professor Jackson has been responsible for the administrative, organizational, long-range planning, budgetary, and certain personnel functions pertaining to an emergency involving an NRC licensee.
As chairman of the NRC, Professor Jackson has articulated a vision that reaffirmed the agency's commitment to public health and safety. She has enhanced its regulatory effectiveness and initiated a bottom-up strategic assessment to examine all NRC activities.
Prior to joining the NRC, Professor Jackson had extensive experience as a university professor, research scientist, consultant and corporate director. From 1991-95, she was professor of physics at Rutgers University, serving concurrently as consultant in semiconductor theory to AT&T Bell Laboratories. From 1976-91, she conducted research in theoretical physics, solid-state and quantum physics and optical physics at Bell Laboratories.
Professor Jackson has also conducted research at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the Aspen Center for Physics.
Professor Jackson was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.
She has served on an advisory panel to the Secretary of Energy on the future of the Department of Energy National Laboratories, on research councils of the National Academy of Sciences, and on the Advisory Council of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Shewas elected first chairperson of the International Nuclear Regulator's Association, formed in 1997.
A native of Washington, DC, Professor Jackson is married to Professor Morris A. Washington, a physicist at Bell Laboratories. They have one son.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 13, 1999.