2 Shirley Ann Jackson: Aim for the Stars
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If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman. —MARGARET THATCHER 2 SHIRLEY ANN JACKSON: Aim for the Stars Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson, shown here cutting a ribbon at the new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, sidesteps the critics in leading RPI’s remarkable transformation.© r ensselaer p o lytech ni c institute 33 FOR AMERICA’S UNIVERSITIES, once the envy of the world, the honeymoon may be over. Survey after survey indicates that they are losing the public trust. Skyrocketing costs, lack of accountability, uneven quality , and poor graduation rates are just a few of the black marks leveled against the academy. More disturbing are reports that the competence of recent graduates is declining. Derided as “compassless” and “underachieving ,” universities face a cascade of dark clouds—from tighter budgets and declining enrollments to unruly faculty and Congressional oversight. Gone, too, is the Golden Age of university presidents. Today’s college chieftains work 24/7. Few last more than seven or eight years, and the number of presidential meltdowns grows and grows. From the nation’s two oldest colleges, Harvard and William and Mary, to two of the youngest , University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, recently departed CEOs fill an ever-expanding Rogues Gallery. Despite relatively high salaries—roughly $350,000 to $500,000 plus attractive perks—fewer and fewer people seek a college presidency. The numbers fluctuate, but, at last count, more than one hundred schools were looking for a chief executive. What was once a plum post has become a position of extraordinary precariousness. “There’s no question that the job has become more demanding, and there is a greater accountability expected,” adds John DiBiaggio, former president of Tufts, Michigan State University, and the University of Connecticut. “The pressures are far, far greater than they once were.” With expectations increasing and resources decreasing, those pressures have made the position 34 bright triumphs frustrating, dispiriting, even dangerous. Exhaustion claimed Harvard’s Neil Rudenstine; depression, Mary Washington’s William Frawley; suicide , UC Santa Cruz’s Denice Denton. Think about it. A candidate for these hellish jobs must be a visionary, a scholar, an ambassador, a manager—able to handle issues like diversity, student catastrophes, faculty pay and tenure, while increasing the endowment and enrollments. He or she also must have an attractive family and an effortlessly sociable spouse—plus a thick skin. Herman Wells, former president of Indiana University, summed it up brilliantly: “He should be born with the physical strength of a Greek athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli , the wisdom of Solomon, and the courage of a lion, if possible. But in any case, he must be born with the stomach of a goat.” University trustees, therefore, have seen fit to broaden their search for would-be presidents. They are actively pursuing more diversity at the top. Today, 23 percent of U.S. colleges and universities are run by women, up from 10 percent in 1986. Women sit at the top of half of the eight Ivy League schools—as well as the presidencies of M.I.T., Purdue, Case Western, Iowa, and Michigan. No surprise then that, eight years ago, the trustees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute gave nationally renowned physicist Shirley Ann Jackson a mandate to steer their university in a new direction. In short order, she transformed the venerable institution into a showcase campus. But in raising the college to a higher level, Jackson’s crusade generated a grab bag of complaints, leading to a faculty no-confidence vote, in academia an action that often precedes a forced resignation—one that, in fact, claimed her predecessor, R. Byron Pipes. Jackson, however, not only survived , but created a bright triumph. “For me, the world has always been full of mysteries,” Jackson told me. “Studying physical properties of matter allowed me to unlock the secrets of the physical world.” As a child in the 1940s, she dreamed of unlocking those secrets as a world-famous physicist. Growing up in Washington, D.C., her passion for exploring the unseen blossomed as an eight-year-old with her carefully documented bumblebee experiments— examining their habits and habitats, studiously keeping a detailed log of their behavior. 35 shirley jackson : aim for the stars Her parents encouraged her youthful enthusiasm. “Aim for the stars,” her father, a postal supervisor with a gift for math and science, urged her, “so that you can reach for...