Physical Sciences

Coffee Break with Shirley Ann Jackson

Five questions for Shirley Ann Jackson from MIT students who attended An Evening With Shirley Ann Jackson

What keeps you motivated?

I care about the future, but I’m not a futurist. I’m not here to prognosticate about the future, but I believe very strongly in the important role of science, technology, and related fields - within an ethical and values-driven context - to uplift people and to make tomorrow better than today. That’s why I am a university president; I believe that young people are our future, and as the song (Greatest Love Of All by Whitney Houston) says, “teach them well and let them lead the way.” There is an imprinting we get to do here [at RPI], which is not always easy because there are a lot of things that bombard students from the outside and influence them. But we have a great opportunity to both be models for them and imbue them with skills and with respect. And that’s what keeps me motivated.

How do you practice self-care?

For me, self-care has two pieces to it. One has to do with physical health. I’m not some uber-athlete, but I like to walk, and my sisters and I hike in the summers. I like walking in the mountains. And that’s also part of psychological self-care because I find it relaxing to get out into the mountains, into nature. If you are standing on or in the presence of a great mountain or a great body of water or even just looking at the trees, it gives you a sense of perspective about who you are and how important the things that bother you really are compared to what nature has wrought. I try to disconnect from time to time to just let my mind relax. And finally, because I am very motivated by what I do, accomplishing things is part of my self-care. 

What is the biggest goal that you are hoping to achieve at some point in the near future?

We just announced a new capital campaign with a goal of $1 billion, and, of course, if we can raise more we will. My short-term focus is to get that campaign launched and to get it done. It will raise money for an endowment for student financial aid; raise money for faculty chairs because attracting and retaining the best faculty is critical; the third thing is building out the campus for the third century. We’ve grown as an institution both in numbers of students and faculty, but also grown in the range of what we do and the complexity of it. So, we need to expand campus housing, academic research facilities, and technology. Those are the three pillars of the campaign, and that’s where my focus is. 
As global tensions and events impact students on college campuses everywhere, how do you respond to these events to ensure that students feel valued and safe at RPI?

Universities exist within the backdrop of whatever is happening in the world and overall public policy. We have always espoused, unless there is a reason based on security or safety, that we are open, that we are global. And though we are rooted in the United States, and we have a responsibility to educate U.S. citizens, the kind of work we do draws talent from around the world. We work hard to make sure all of our students here, domestic and international, feel welcome and safe. 

In our university’s strategic plan, diversity and inclusion are explicitly called out. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we mean intellectual diversity, geographic diversity, ethnic and cultural diversity, and gender diversity. Because we believe and value all of that, we are an inclusive place. We think it is important that people have the freedom to discuss and espouse different political views but with civility. I’ve been clear about this as has our leadership and our board: we don’t support those who harass and intimidate or incite to violence, and we have no tolerance for racial bigotry, antisemitism or any religious bigotry, gender or gender identity bias. We take a strong stance vis a vis sexual assault with a process that is fair to both sides, and if we find cause, we do take action.

We’ve restructured our curriculum to include what we call “The Arch” where students begin their junior year early, in the summer after their sophomore year, and can take a semester or more off and still graduate in the same amount of time. They have to leave the campus, and we encourage them to go abroad. We don’t want them to be afraid of the world.

As the former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, what is your take on the future of energy?

I’ve never been one who liked to predict the future, but I would say a couple of things. I think we are going to see more regional and even country-specific approaches to energy use and energy sourcing. I think we are beginning to see a balance of sources — depending on the sector of use — and as we go forward, there will be a need to balance between generation and conservation. There are some clever ways to do that that go beyond what we think about photovoltaic solar panels or whether nuclear will be the next thing. A holistic, comprehensive approach is something that I think people will look at. I think companies are already looking at how to take more energy out of their processes using newer smarter technologies including, obviously, automation, but also embedding data analytics and using that in real-time or near real-time to cut down on waste and to be able to spot trends or anomalies that may occur. And these things ironically are driven by a series of things that all nest together. There obviously is an interest in being more energy efficient, but also an interest from a security point of view, looking at issues of vulnerability in infrastructure and cyber-physical systems. 

There is a need for adaptation vis a vis our changing climate. There are places where one is beginning to see sea level rise even to the extent that some whole populations may need to move. But there also is the need, with changing weather patterns, to build infrastructure differently to be able to withstand unfortunate weather events. And you do see, in a number of places, the desire to adhere to the targets that were set in the Paris Accords on conservation and greenhouse gas reduction. I think you are going to see a mixture of approaches to cut down on some of the conventional energy sources, but the risk is merely substituting one type of fossil energy for another.  Balance is important because the sourcing of energy has implications for the climate and it has implications for the ability of nations and people to lift themselves out of poverty, and it is important people have that kind of access. It’s a complex set of questions that all intersect with each other - this intersection makes it hard to be absolutely predictive, but I think these are some of the considerations that have to come into play.