Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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Director of the Year Awards

Category: Regional
May, 2019
Pleasantdale Chateau

National Association of Corporate Directors-New Jersey

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

I am deeply honored to receive the inaugural Lifetime Achievement in Governance Award from the National Association of Corporate Directors’ New Jersey Chapter.

My experience in governance has accumulated, throughout my career, as unexpected windows of opportunity have opened—and I have stepped through them.

It began in academia, when, shortly after I received my doctorate in theoretical physics, I was elected to the MIT Corporation, its board of trustees, where today I am a Life Member.

As a graduate student at MIT, I had taken on a role that led to this invitation. I was asked to join the Task Force on Educational Opportunity—led by then-Associate Provost Paul Gray (later President), focused on increasing the diversity of students, faculty, and administrators at MIT.

Through this work, because I had proven that I could address intricate challenges in science, and in the broader socio-economic realm, I became a trusted advisor to many organizations—scientific, governmental, and economic.

Sometime after I had launched my research career at the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Governor Thomas Kean appointed me to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which promoted innovation—through investments in research—at the major public and private universities in the state—in areas deemed important to the New Jersey economy. Because the Commission included politicians, university presidents, and corporate CEOs, I gained insights into leadership in different sectors.

Two other senior advisory positions followed under the next two governors of New Jersey.

My first corporate board service—at New Jersey Resources Corporation—was where I initially became engaged with the energy business. As a result, I was an interesting choice, when a recruiter was looking for a new director for PSEG, in 1987.

One opportunity led to another in multiple realms. My board service with PSEG—where today I am privileged to serve as Lead Director—changed my life. PSEG owned or co-owned, and operated, a number of nuclear reactors. Because of my background in physics, I sat on, and later chaired, for a number of years, the PSEG Nuclear Oversight Committee.

I believe this service led to my name arising in 1994, when President Bill Clinton was seeking a Commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—the NRC—which regulates the civilian use of nuclear power and materials. After interviewing at the White House, I was offered the job of Chairman of the NRC. Thanks to my board service in state government and at PSEG, I was ready for this leap.  

My tenure as Chairman of the NRC coincided with the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the initial aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, with the weapons-grade uranium of the Soviet nuclear programs needing better control in the newly independent states. My tenure also came nine years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in 1986, in Ukraine. As a consequence, not only was I faced with leading the oversight of the nuclear industry in the U.S., I was very involved in international efforts to promote nuclear safety and non-proliferation, by working with President Nelson Mandela’s government to create a policy and process framework for nuclear safety regulation, and working with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, to improve the safety of their nuclear plants, and to create a framework for nuclear materials disposition.

Then another window opened. Four years into my NRC tenure, I was asked, in 1999, to assume the presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the U.S. At that point, my experience in research, in a national leadership role, and in fostering international cooperation, led to corporate board seats in a number of different arenas, beginning with FedEx in 1999, where I still serve today.

I also contributed my regulatory experience and technological background to governance in capital markets, by serving on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, later NYSE Euronext, and serving as Chair of the New York Stock Exchange Regulation Board. Over the last decade, I have served in other advisory roles, including in the World Economic Forum, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and as Co-Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

In 2005, I became a director of IBM. Rensselaer and IBM have been wonderful partners in groundbreaking research in fields that include high performance computing, cognitive computing, immersive technologies, data visualization, and remarkable applications of them.

I also had the privilege of serving, for a number of years, on the board of the great biomedical device company, Medtronic plc—where technology, the life sciences, and medicine come together to create therapies to save and improve lives.

In deciding where to devote my time, I have chosen organizations that connect with the academic and research thrusts of Rensselaer; and organizations where I respect the values, the CEO, and the senior management. This has been true for all the boards I currently serve on, and have served on in the past.

I believe my strengths as a director come from the linkages I am able to make—among technology, governance, public policy, and global affairs. Since the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley on the one hand, and post-recession regulatory requirements on the other—in the face of shareholder activism, globalization, and explosive technological developments—particularly in the cyber realm, the world has changed for corporations, and their boards. Things move much faster—with greater complexity and vulnerability. The power of social media shines a spotlight on, and creates higher expectations and attendant scrutiny of, boards that did not exist in earlier days.

As President of Rensselaer, I have my fingers on the pulse of emerging technologies and paradigm-breaking discoveries. Because our greatest mission is educating the next generations, I understand what motivates Millennials and Generation Z—and can advise corporations on recruiting brilliant young people, and allowing them to contribute, in their unique ways, to the corporate world.

My background in governance—in business, government, and academia—allows me to bring a multi-faceted perspective to the boardroom.

As a director, I also do my homework. I listen, and I put in the time to study and understand the specifics of the business.

I have been fortunate in my career to have had so many opportunities to serve in governance roles. Each corporate board has brought me knowledge and insight that I apply to the others. By now, I am a walking compendium of knowledge about governance in industry, academia, and government—not “all knowing,” but a compendium nonetheless.

It is a privilege to apply that knowledge to advance the missions of the corporations on whose boards I serve, and their shareholders.

Again, I thank you for this signal honor—from an association that promotes professionalism and excellence in the boardroom. I will take inspiration from this award, as I welcome the challenges and possibilities ahead.