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Medal for Distinguished Service (Citation)

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Masters Convocation
Teachers College, Columbia University
Riverside Church
New York, New York

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Shirley Ann JacksonMedal Citation 

Shirley Ann Jackson, you have been described as “a national treasure” by the National Science Board, which honored you in 2007 for “a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy,” and as “the ultimate role model for women in science,” by Time magazine.

Regardless of how one describes you, your extraordinary leadership in government, industry, research, and academe speaks for itself and has established you as one of the most important figures at the nexus of science, technology and learning.

You blazed an early and brilliant path as a theoretical physicist, moving from the then-emerging field of solid state physics to the study of sub-atomic particles. Your work included exploration of charged density waves in layered compounds, polaronic aspects of electrons in the surface of liquid helium films, and optical and electronic properties of semiconductor strained-layer superlattices. During this period you served as a research scientist at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories, and a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University. 

In 1995, President Clinton named you to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — an organization that at that time was the focus of enormous public distrust. During your tenure at NRC, you earned respect from the industry’s proponents and critics alike, introducing rigorous new standards and restoring NRC’s reputation as a steward of public safety.

Since becoming the eighteenth President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999, you have fostered an extraordinary renaissance there that has included the hiring of new faculty; new construction and renovation of facilities for research, teaching, and student life; a doubling of research awards; and innovations in curriculum, undergraduate research, and student life initiatives.

More specifically, you have a led a successful billion-dollar capital campaign, hired more than 180 new faculty members, improved quality metrics for entering students, dramatically renewed and enhanced the physical plant, and established Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a leader in biotechnology and information technology, launching a new Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. You also have reached out to surrounding low-income residents through your “communiversity” initiative; boosted the number of women and minorities — the population you refer to as “the under-represented majority” — on the faculty and in the student body in an effort to tap into the complete talent pool in the “STEM” field (science, technology, engineering and math); and in every respect, strengthened the reputation of a center of learning that was already regarded as a precious national resource.  

You also have been hailed for your work in addressing what you have described as the “quiet crisis” in the United States — the record numbers of scientists and engineers who are retiring without a sufficient number of young professionals prepared to replace them. Declaring that “energy security is the space race of this millennium,” you have urged a national focus on energy research as a focal point to excite and encourage greater interest in STEM careers. And you have worked to advance that agenda through your efforts as past President and Chairman of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and through your advisory roles and involvement with the National Academies, the Council on Competitiveness Innovations Initiative, the National Governors Association and other organizations.

In the midst of all your remarkable accomplishments, we should not lose sight of your many “firsts” as an African American woman — the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. in any subject; one of the first two African-American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the U.S.;  the first African-American woman to lead a national research university; the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. These are noteworthy not only because of what they say about your own perseverance and talent, but also because of what they tell us about the continuing need to open doors for equal opportunity in our society.

President Jackson, scientific intelligence, ability and experience such as yours are rare enough. Rarer still are those who can combine such qualities and bring them to bear on the teaching of others, the shaping of great institutions and the making of effective public policy. For all these achievements, and for the many more that are surely still to come, we present you with the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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