Shirley Ann Jackson (SB 1968, PhD), lifetime member of the MIT Corporation, was formally inaugurated last Friday as the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It was the latest highlight of a distinguished career as a physicist at Bell Laboratories, a professor at Rutgers University and head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Among the MIT guests at the ceremony were MIT President Charles Vest and Mrs. Rebecca Vest, and President Emeritus Paul Gray and Mrs. Priscilla Gray. Dr. Gray knew Dr. Jackson when she was a student here in the 1960s and '70s.
Dr. Jackson received the SB in physics in 1968, and in 1973 became the first African-American woman to get a PhD in physics at MIT.
Delivering greetings at the ceremony on behalf of academic institutions, Dr. Vest referred to the new president's long association with MIT: "From her student days to the present moment, we have been the beneficiaries of her vision, leadership, tenacity, remarkable coalition-building skills, and her wise observations and advice, always delivered with her characteristic candor.
"You could not have a better leader for these times. In today's world, the activities of the academy, government and industry are increasingly interrelated -- especially at institutions such as RPI, with your strong core of science and engineering. You are fortunate indeed... to have as your new president a woman who has experience at the highest levels in, and understanding of, all three sectors of our society.
"Now, I have noticed that some of my fellow university presidents have taken to calling themselves CEOs. I want to assure you that Shirley Jackson will be no CEO -- though she certainly could be. She will be a university president in the profound sense of that title. That is to say, she understands, at a deep level, the essence of universities, the importance of the life of the mind, the goals and aspirations of students, faculty and staff, and the unique role that the academy plays in our society. And she will lead accordingly -- on the campus and on the world stage."
Later, in an informal report to the Academic Council, Dr. Vest wrote, "Becky and I just returned from Shirley Jackson's inauguration as president of RPI... It is very clear that she has taken the community by storm.
"This morning dawned as an absolutely perfect day with crystal-clear blue skies, and remained perfect throughout. The academic procession was led by an outstanding bagpipe band, which played Amazing Grace as Shirley entered. There were choral works performed by a student group, and Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man was played by a brass ensemble. When we mounted the stage, I spotted a number of people from MIT in the audience, including Clarence and Mildred Williams, Jerry Friedman, and Leo Osgood.
"Shirley's husband Morris Washington, their son Alan, her mother and sisters were all present, in addition to friends that went back as far as first grade.
"Shirley's address was simply elegant, delivered in a soft, unmodulated voice, but in an extremely effective manner. She began by talking about those who had supported her journey, especially Morris. I have never seen an individual look on with such pride as he did. And I found myself extraordinarily moved as I realized what a truly historic moment this was for our country.
"It was a true privilege to represent the university community and MIT at this inauguration. MIT, and our physics department, can be very proud of the role it played in making this day possible."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 1999.