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RPI President Addresses Background, Campus Controversy In Public Conversation

WAMC Elizabeth Hill
Dr. Shirley Jackson and Rex Smith

Making rare public comments, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Dr. Shirley Jackson addressed several ongoing controversies during a conversation at the Times Union’s Hearst Media Center

Times Union Editor Rex Smith began by asking Jackson, the first African American woman to receive a Doctorate at MIT who took over at RPI in 1999, if she always wanted to be a leader.

“Well my aspiration was to make a difference, I grew up in a family that had a strong focus on education and doing something for the world.  I remember I was graduating from high school having discussions with teachers about the fact that if one were blessed with certain abilities and opportunities and good health that it wasn’t enough to just do something for oneself," said Jackson.

Jackson highlighted her parents as her biggest mentors.

“My mother taught us all to read before kindergarten, and then my father was very mathematically gifted.  In fact, he developed a special splice during the Normandy Invasion that allowed the rudders for the amphibious land vehicles that broke to be fixed," said Jackson.

Smith asked how Jackson transitioned from a specializing in scientific pursuits to administration. She went on to run the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a $1 billion dollar agency with 4,000 employees.  Jackson said being educated in science forces you to deal with complexity and look at systems and situations that appear chaotic.

“And so the point then is to try to understand not just the individual phenomena but the underlying principles and to be able to develop models that are both explanatory and predictive," said Jackson.

The conversation comes after months of public debate over RPI’s policies and its future, with some current students and alumni expressing frustration with Jackson’s leadership. In October, the Troy campus faced backlash after student advocates were punished for protesting on campus.  They were fighting for the preservation of the student-governed Rensselaer Union.  Violations included "trespassing," "failure to comply with an Institute official," and a breach of student handbook rules on "maintenance of public order."  RPI has since dropped the charges. Jackson had this to say:

“Our students are a very quiet student body.  But there is a social media amplification that can occur and I would say that 95 or more percent of our students are just going about their business.  Certainly we have had our share of things that you all have written about but in the end we are moving ahead.  These students are still getting a great education, and what they are learning even as a part of dissent is a part of their education," said Jackson.

Dr. Jackson’s 10-year contract as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute runs through in 2020.

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