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Week of 19 May 2005· Vol. VIII, No. 30

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RPI President Jackson to deliver Baccalaureate address

By Jessica Ullian

Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT. Photo courtesy of RPI


Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT. Photo courtesy of RPI

When Shirley Ann Jackson began her studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964, a faculty member told her that the best advice he could offer African-American women was that they “should learn a trade.” It was one of many examples of prejudice and misunderstanding that Jackson, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and was one of only two African-American women in her freshman class, encountered early in her college career. Fortunately, she had received better advice from her father, a postal supervisor, who told his children: “Aim for the stars so that you reach the treetops, and at any rate you’ll get off the ground.”

“His essential message was, ‘If you don’t aim high, you won’t go far,’” Jackson told C-SPAN earlier this year. “And that was a lesson he taught us all the time.”

The lesson clearly resonated with Jackson, currently the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and the speaker at this year’s University Baccalaureate service. Heeding her father’s advice, Jackson chose to study physics at MIT, and after receiving a bachelor of science degree, she remained for her doctoral studies in theoretical elementary particle physics. In 1973, she became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT, and one of the first two African-American women in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics.

“Since that time, I have become a leader in various arenas, including industry, government, and higher education,” Jackson told a group of high school students at last fall’s Gates Millennium Scholars Leadership Conference. “In fact, given the opportunity for leadership, I felt a responsibility to step forward when the opportunity arose because I felt I could make a difference to our nation and to the education of the next generation.”

The need to make a difference — and the challenges that scientists and leaders face in their efforts to effect change — is among the themes Jackson will discuss as she delivers the annual Baccalaureate address, entitled Finding an Ethical Balance, on Sunday, May 22, at 9 a.m. at Marsh Chapel. Later that morning, she will be presented with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, at the All-University Commencement exercises.

As a child in Washington, D.C., Jackson was one of the first African-American students to benefit from the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which integrated the nation’s public schools in 1954. Having spent her early childhood in Washington’s segregated school system, after the decision she was able to transfer to a public school closer to her home and take advanced classes. She was the valedictorian of her high school class.

After obtaining two degrees from MIT, Jackson began conducting research in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. She became a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University in 1991, and continued to consult at Bell Laboratories, but changed careers when, as she told C-SPAN, “I got a call from the White House.” President Bill Clinton appointed Jackson chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995.

Jackson served as head of the NRC for four years, with ultimate authority in any nuclear emergency involving an NRC licensee. During her tenure she initiated new planning, budgeting, and performance management systems at the agency and led the development of the International Nuclear Regulators Association, a group made up of the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

After she became the president of RPI in 1999, Jackson launched the Rensselaer Plan, a long-term effort to recruit new faculty, increase research awards, expand the number of doctoral students, and increase gifts and gift commitments. She has also been a vocal proponent of expanding what she calls “affirmative opportunity” to recruit young women, minority students, and people with disabilities into the scientific community and maintain the United States’ place as a leader in technological innovation.

“There simply are not enough U.S. students in the education pipeline to maintain the status quo, much less sustain our leadership,” she wrote in the “Presidential Perspectives” section of the New York Times Web site. “As a nation, we must enlist our K-12 teachers, parents, principals, scientists — indeed all our citizens, policymakers, legislators, and leaders — to identify, to attract, and to nurture all talent, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or physical challenges. . . . The continued economic and technological superiority of the United States depends on it.”

Jackson is the chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also a life member of the MIT Corporation and a member of the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2002, Jackson was named one of the top 50 women in science by Discover magazine.


19 May 2005
Boston University
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