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University president sees need for speed

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

When Shirley Ann Jackson chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for four years starting in 1995, she made safety standards tougher for nuclear plants, made it easier to renew licenses, and brought together regulators from around the globe to talk about safety.

Now the physicist has a new gig.

Jackson swooped in eight years ago to turn around Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the venerable engineering school in upstate New York.

When Jackson arrived, Rensselaer’s enrollment, endowment and finances were weak. It needed help, and Jackson’s not shy about why she came. As a visionary and a change agent, she had a plan. Her modus operandi:
  • She’s focused. She can sift through tons of data, clarify it and bring a strategy into play. She led the push to double the endowment, research funds and doctorates awarded.

  • She doesn’t waste time. The interim head of Rensselaer’s new bio-tech center says he’s never seen an institution change so fast, which can be stressful. “That’s just the pace at which I work,” Jackson says.

  • She’s practical, attacking problems methodically.

  • She’s visible. This year, she’s given four commencement speeches, explored academic partnerships in Europe, spoke about energy security at Harvard and appeared before the nation’s governors and the National Science Foundation. She’s a board member at half a dozen corporations.

  • She gets results. In less than two years, she snagged a $360 million gift, then the largest single gift to an individual U.S. university. That “got people’s attention,” she notes. She tapped the bond market for $400 million to build and renovate. Student applications have almost doubled.
Jackson is not without controversy. Her formal, even aloof, style and frank manner led to a no-confidence vote she barely survived. And her frenetic pace wears people out.

But Rensselaer needed change and got it. “I have a lot of energy,” she says.

—Adapted from “Shirley Ann Jackson Sticks to the Plan,” Audrey Williams June, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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