RPI president, a science leader and trailblazer, will retire in 2022

From her work at the Institute to her influence on the global stage, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has been a transformational force in Troy, N.Y.
By: | June 28, 2021
Photo courtesy of RPI

The first African-American woman to take the reins at a top American research university more than 20 years ago will be stepping away from the position next year.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, one of the nation’s most revered science and institutional leaders, announced she will retire from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute July 1, 2022, leaving behind a legacy that includes 450 new faculty hires, an endowment that has reached $1 billion, huge campus infrastructure improvements and the continued building of world-class academic programs.

“It has been the privilege and honor of my professional career to serve as President of Rensselaer since 1999,” President Jackson said in a message to the RPI community. “Throughout my tenure, the Institute has transformed into a vibrant community, with significant investments in new and existing academic, research, and residential facilities.”

Jackson, who became the 18th President of RPI in 1999, has carved an unprecedented path for both her institution and the nation. She became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied physics. She served as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999 under former President Bill Clinton and was Co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board in 2014 under President Barack Obama. She also received the National Medal of Science in 2016 from President Obama for her efforts in science and engineering.

Her leadership outside of RPI’s walls in Troy, N.Y., has been transformational. But her work inside them—including the creation of the new Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems (EBESS) and Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students (CLASS)—has been just as impressive.

“I want to express my deep personal admiration and gratitude, and that of the other Trustees, to her and for what she has done for RPI these past 22 years, and for my own privilege of working with her for 16 of those years—the past five as Chair of the Board of Trustees—recognizing that my words can never suffice to thank her adequately for her leadership, vision, tireless efforts, and accomplishments during that time,” said Arthur Golden ’66, Chairman of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees.

As the university looks ahead to its 200th anniversary in 2024, it is worth noting how well RPI adapted in perhaps its most challenging year under Jackson. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that set back many campuses with outbreaks, RPI was one of the nation’s leaders in the fight against the virus early on with nearly 7,000 tests per week and a positivity rate of just 0.5% during the fall. It also led the way on research, continued to fundraise and was also a player on the global stage through its work on President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate.

“Navigating the university through the global pandemic this past year tested our courage, agility, and flexibility,” Jackson said. “We passed the test with flying colors. Most importantly, we came together as one united and resilient university. In the months ahead, I look forward to the opportunity to personally thank you for your collaboration, contributions, and support over the years.”