She’s worked as a theoretical physicist at Bell Laboratories and chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She cochaired President Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and served on the boards of IBM and FedEx. And since 1999, she’s been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. … She also has a magnificent ability to understand organizations and how to be effective within them … She has always been the cool head in the group.”
Jackson stayed at MIT for doctoral work, partly because she recognized the power of an MIT doctorate, and partly because she “wasn’t going to give people the satisfaction of getting me to walk away.”
I think I may have a new role model. 🙂
So during her first semester of graduate school, in the fall of 1968, Jackson traveled around the Midwest as part of a national effort do something MIT had never done before: recruit minority students. A year later, 57 African-American freshmen enrolled, up from three to five per year in previous years. To help those students succeed, Jackson helped create and then taught in a summer program called Project Interphase, designed to provide academic support for incoming minority freshmen and acclimate them to MIT. “I wasn’t the best student in her class,” says Gates, who had attended a segregated high school in Orlando, Florida, and was the first in his family to go to college. “But she was an amazing instructor and inspiration. She had standards of rigor and difficult physics problems the likes of which I had never seen.” In nearly five decades, more than 2,000 students have taken part in the program, now called Interphase EDGE.
Wow, she’s left an amazing legacy. I know first-hand how difficult it is to have a new student organization last beyond a few years.
“It’s important to serve,” Jackson says. “It does take a lot of time. But I don’t play golf. And I have the ability to learn fast.”
Instead, she focuses on pragmatic responses to serious problems. For example, even for those who deny humans’ role in climate change, the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events “stares you in the face,” she says. “You can see the effects in housing, in the stability of roads.” So she encourages people to help look for ways to address those effects “even if you don’t believe that at the front end is climate change.” (Of course, she also acknowledges that building practices only go so far, and scientists and public policy experts need to keep talking about the root causes of climate change.)
Apparently, there’s a lot of backlash on this article (see the comments). It’s a pretty good reflection of what women and minorities in STEM still need to deal with (lose-lose). Here is one encouraging response:
I am a former alum of RPI, and I a bit wary of some of the complaints of my fellow alumni, because I am a member of our alumni forum (on LinkedIn) and some of the comments there are very disparaging and question her qualifications (of a PhD from MIT for that matter). I would encourage my fellow alumni to also show a modicum of integrity by rebuking the deeply prejudicial comments that are in our alumni forum on LinkedIn. No one will trust your complaints, when the motivation behind those comments is not clear (–in some cases they are in the clear–). There are real issues such high cost of tuition, and independence of the student run Union. It is hard to focus on pertinent issues and at the same time ignore the malice of some alumni.
Dr. Jackson is widely reported to have a take-no-prisoners leadership style, but so did Margaret Thatcher (who had no shortage of critics). Are strong and forceful women leaders in a lose-lose situation? I do not know. In an era of pay disparity, some complain about how highly she is paid, yet some NCAA D-1 Football coaches make million dollar salaries. What is the balance?
Dr. Jackson has had a very distinguished career as a scientist. She has led some impressive infrastructure improvements at RPI and the school is very different than what it looked like in the late 80s and early 90s. I think she can be criticized, but our alumni community should also scrutinize itself.