Professor Susan Jackson passed away peacefully on June 30, surrounded by her loving family, including her husband Richard, son Nathaniel, and daughter Hannah. At the time of her death, Susan was assistant provost for general education implementation; before that, she served as the senior associate dean in charge of undergraduate curriculum and policy in the College of Arts and Sciences for 22 years. After starting her professorial career at Duke, she came to Boston University in 1982 as a lecturer in French, became assistant professor in 1985, and was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1991. A proud member of Phi Beta Kappa since her junior year at Wellesley, Susan was also the longtime Secretary of the Epsilon chapter of Massachusetts, which is housed at BU.
In 1994, Susan joined the College Dean’s Office as the Associate Dean of the College, and she was named Senior Associate Dean in 1998 when the number of associate deans began to grow. In this role, she served four deans: Dennis Berkey, Jeff Henderson, Gina Sapiro, and me. Susan not only accomplished a lot in her time in the CAS dean’s office, her steady presence sustained the College through transitions and challenges. Most of all, she expertly advised deans, faculty, and staff on teaching and learning, leaving an indelible mark on the curriculum and pedagogy at Boston University.
Valedictorian of Wellesley College’s class of 1972, fluent or highly competent in multiple languages, Susan (Klem) Jackson had a powerful, philosophical mind, astounding erudition, and a deep love of liberal education. Susan’s intellectual breadth and appreciation for the arts and the sciences equipped her to help faculty add new courses to the catalog and to assist departments and programs in creating dozens of majors and minors. Her adherence to the principles of liberal education led her to fiercely and steadfastly defend the foreign language and mathematics requirements against pointed and even litigious attacks. Through her careful guidance, Susan had a huge effect on the structure and shape of the College’s curricular offerings and our students’ education. By my calculation, about 55,000 students received BA degrees that have been fundamentally shaped by her, and there will many more in the coming years.
Susan was a policy wonk who could craft the language to accomplish the goals of the college by creating needed boundary lines for faculty and students. Susan was especially concerned about the status of lecturers and of women faculty, having experienced personally how each could be mistreated in academia, and she worked to make policies and practices more inclusive and fair for both groups, such as by clarifying promotion criteria and improving family leave policies. In recent years, Susan patiently and constructively led the faculty through the difficult credit hour policy changes. She wrote the College’s first Bylaws during Dean Berkey’s time, and initiated the process of revision that resulted in the significant amendments that were ratified last academic year.
Recognized for her own outstanding teaching, Susan was perhaps even better as a teacher and mentor of teachers. She had a nuanced knowledge of the standards and common methods of teaching and advising in the College, which she learned, in part, through exhaustively reading the student evaluations of teaching across CAS every semester. She also had a good understanding of the national conversation and scholarship on teaching and learning, and used this to gently guide policy as well as conversations with individuals about their courses. Not prone to passing enthusiasms, she had an appreciation for many different styles and forms of pedagogy, judging them each by the results in student learning.
Susan’s research and writings centered around the literature and philosophy of 18th century France, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but also women writers such as Isabelle de Charrière. She was especially interested in epistolary and autobiographical writings, and was fascinated by how Rousseau and others presented themselves in such writings. In the preface to her 1992 book, Rousseau’s Occasional Autobiographies, she explains that she came to be interested in the personal, introspective genre in part through her 1950’s gendered upbringing that discouraged such self-searching in girls and women. Mirrors, she says, were for decoration, not self-discovery. The idea of focusing on and creating one’s own self fascinated but also in some ways repelled her, and Rousseau’s occasional glimpses into the mirror reflected in earlier “occasional” autobiographical passages were as revealing as and prepared the way for, she argued, his two-volume Confessions. Susan’s research not only reflected her personal ambivalence about fame, it also sharpened her understanding of the personality of those who seek it.
Deans need faculty champions for a variety of tasks and projects, which makes personal knowledge of the faculty members essential to getting things done. Knowing every faculty member in this huge college, Susan helped me identify those most suited to serve on just about any committee or having the special talents for any job required. With her keen sense of the personalities and principles involved, she helped me navigate the political waters of the College and advised me on what changes are likely to be welcomed by our faculty and which issues are better approached very slowly or left alone entirely. She also used this personal knowledge, combined with her wit and erudition, to write and present some amazingly articulate, playfully pun-filled, sometimes ruefully incisive, occasional speeches. I had heard the legends about her abilities in this regard, and I will never forget the speech she gave in 2016 to celebrate James Winn’s directorship of the BU Center for the Humanities.
I came to rely, as I know the College generally relied, upon Susan’s keen intelligence, her quick and playful wit, her ability to discern the real, underlying issue, and her unparalleled work ethic. Susan was a tireless servant of the College. Legendarily, she put in longer hours at her work than seems humanly possible. And her hours were full of both deep, intense thinking and efficient ticking-off of items on the to-do list. Susan got stuff done and done right.
As the news of her death has spread, I have been deluged with messages about Susan’s helpful guidance, gentle mentoring, principled stands, marvelous sense of humor, and generally massive contributions to our College. Her impact has been immense, and it is gratifying to see how much our colleagues recognize it. Her husband, Rich, shared with me that the outpouring of letters and messages from all of you comforted and cheered her in her last days. Susan Jackson’s presence made the College what it is today, and she will not soon be forgotten.