The 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is celebrating 20 years at the helm of the university. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson became the first woman to lead RPI in 1999 — and the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research school nationwide, period. Her tenure has included groundbreaking research and some campus controversy. WAMC’s Jesse King sat down with Jackson for a rare interview.
For two decades now, President Shirley Ann Jackson – a winner of the National Medal of Science, a physicist by training, and the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT – has been a staple of RPI. The Troy university says freshman applications have tripled since Jackson’s start, and credits her for overseeing the school’s overarching Rensselaer Plan and a $1.4 billion capital campaign. Looking back on the projects of the past 20 years, Jackson says she can’t pick a favorite.
"I set out to fundamentally improve the student experience, and with things like the First Year Experience and CLASS, The Arch — but also how we've improved where the students live, the classrooms they're in, the labs, the educational programs — that's been a big part of my focus here," notes Jackson. "But also building the faculty and getting people in new fields. So focusing on the people.
"I always have the three P's: People, Programs, and Platforms. Universities are about people inherently, our students are the reason we're here — the faculty who teach them, and the staff who have to enable everything that goes on. People create and are the basis of new programs — so new research programs, 24 new academic degree programs. And then the platforms, part of it has to do with your basic infrastructure. So we changed infrastructure, some of the guts of the university: building a boiler plant, parking garage, underground electrical substation. We built a whole new storm water management system underneath College Avenue, and that's something normally a city would do — but because we knew we were building the bio-tech center, and later EMPAC...so we've done all of that.
"And so it's the holistic plan [that I'm most proud of], and accopmlishing those things that have to do with the people, programs, platforms, and developing relationships with many other partners to support what we do. And carrying out one major and successful capital campaign, and now doing another, and strengthening the financial underpinning of the university — so you see why I can't just talk about one thing."
The lobby of Jackson’s office, stocked with books, awards, and a framed letter from President Obama, is a not-so-subtle reminder of the wealth of Jackson’s resume. Before coming to RPI, she was Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and she’s since served on a number of boards in D.C., abroad, and on corporations like FedEx and IBM. Jackson says those experiences inform her leadership at RPI, and while the job itself hasn’t changed much over the past two decades, its qualifications have.
"You have to have intellectual credibility, be an intellectual leader. One has to be a CEO increasingly, which I think is different than how people thought of presidencies in the past. If one has a residentially-based campus, it's like being the mayor of a small town, most whose residents are 18 to 24-years-old," says Jackson. "It's being a friend, a mentor, a coach, as well as having to do things that one expects a CEO to do — because I'm also responsible for the health and safety of the campus. And so all these things are part of what one has to worry about."
Jackson’s tenure has included some rough patches, particularly in recent years. In 2017, protests erupted on campus – and were shut down – as Jackson’s administration moved to take control of the traditionally student-led Student Union. For the past two years, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has listed RPI in its Top 10 worst campuses for free speech, and an August revision of the RPI handbook of student rights included a provision regulating the material students can distribute on campus.
Jackson has also faced criticism over her status as one of the highest-paid university presidents in the country. The Times Union reported on a recent tax filing showing Jackson earned $5.8 million in 2017. Meantime, a group of dissident alumni continue to raise concerns over the school’s expenditures. To critics, Jackson says the kind of education offered by RPI is inherently expensive.
"If one wants to educate particularly young people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and related fields, the kind of infrastructure we have to have is very expensive. And if one wants to educate our students at the leading edge, which we do, one has to have faculty who operate at that leading edge, and one has to pay them well. And that's expensive," explains Jackson. "Having said that, yes, there is a nominal high-ticket price [of attendance], but the price is not the cost. And so we offer quite a bit of financial aid so the students here don't bear the full burden. And here's the thing: even if they did all pay full tuition, that still doesn't cover the full cost — so it depends on philanthropy, gifts, grants, a number of other things. But we're mindful of that, and so we've really beefed up our financial aid over the years, and we offer a lot. And our [students'] default rate on loans is tiny — it ranges from less than a percent to one-and-a-half percent. Because students appreciate the education they get, but importantly they're able to repay the loans, and they graduate with an indebtedness that's way less than what you hear in the media.
"Now to my pay, 1.) I try to make sure everybody here is well-paid for the positions they're in, and that they have really good benefits as well as basic compensation. All while managing our costs — and that's why we're one of the top employers in the state of New York. In the end, I don't set my pay — the board of trustees does. And so they do an evaluation, and they do benchmarking against other presidencies, and they look at what the changes have been for the university, and whether I, with the team I have, deliver."
At 20 years and counting, Jackson’s tenure at RPI has far outlasted the five-year average of university presidents across the country. Her current contract extension runs through June 2022, so the 73-year-old is quick to note she’s not done yet. But she’s keeping her options open.
“Well, we’ll see, but you know I’ve been here a long time, and so I try to focus on what I’m trying to do," notes Jackson. "My father always taught me that you try to finish what you start. And the way you get whatever you’re gonna do next is to do as well as you can in the job you’re in. And that’s where I am.”
Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute serves roughly 7,900 students. Previous campus presidents include Palmer Ricketts, who led the school for 33 years in the early 1900s, and George Low, who is most remembered for his contributions to the Apollo space program in the 1960s.