Penn’s first PIK professor and two-time dean brings broad experience and an “ethnographic sensibility” to the role of chief academic officer.
When John L. Jackson Jr.’s appointment as the University’s 31st provost was announced in January, Penn President Liz Magill called him a “true University citizen.” Along with his contributions as a scholar and teacher and his service as dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) and the Annenberg School for Communication, she pointed to his chairing of the ongoing Red and Blue Advisory Committee charged with synthesizing the opinions of Penn stakeholders on the University’s next phase of development. “John Jackson is one of Penn’s most respected and accomplished academic leaders,” Magill said. “I know he will guide Penn to even greater heights” as provost.
Jackson takes office on June 1, succeeding Beth A. Winkelstein EAS’93, who has served as interim provost since July 2021 after Wendell Pritchett Gr’97 took a leave of absence and subsequently returned to the faculty.
As Penn’s chief academic officer, the provost oversees the faculty, research, admissions and student life, Penn’s libraries, athletics and recreation, arts organizations, and global initiatives.
Jackson—the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Africana Studies, and Anthropology—came to Penn in 2006 as the first Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor. An ethnographer and filmmaker whose work encompasses urban life, religion, race, and the media, Jackson is the author of several books, including Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America and Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, and has codirected the films Bad Friday: Rastafari after Coral Gardens and Making Sweet Tea: The Lives and Loves of Southern Black Gay Men. Besides serving as the Walter H. Annenberg Dean at Annenberg since 2019 and as dean of SP2 from 2014 to 2018, he was a senior advisor to the provost on diversity at Penn from 2012 to 2014 and held several administrative posts at Annenberg.
In a March interview, Jackson cited his experiences working with Magill and her team on efforts like the Red and Blue Committee and his chairing of the search for a new dean for the Graduate School of Education as having piqued his interest in being considered for the provost position. “I was really appreciating the ways in which she collaborated with senior leadership, the kinds of approaches she took,” he says. “I thought, ‘You know what, I know the place, I’ve been here for a long time. If I’m going to do it, this might be the time.’”
Jackson’s longevity should be an asset for a president still new to the institution. “I do think and hope that one of the things that I will be helpful on is [that] I’ve had such different vantage points for looking at a place like Penn.”
The cross-disciplinary PIK professorship, launched by President Emerita Amy Gutmann Hon’22 in 2006 “was, for me at least, a wonderful point of entry into the University.” The SP2 deanship provided a different perspective on the city than some other Penn schools. “If you’re dean of that school, you’re in the City of Philadelphia, your students are all over Philadelphia. The urban ethnographer in me found that amazing,” he says. “It’s almost like, as dean, I could do both: lead the school, but also use the skills I developed as an urban researcher to think about how to navigate Philadelphia effectively for my students and for the faculty and staff.”
While fundraising is a preoccupation for all deans, that pressure is less intense at Annenberg. “It was something I didn’t have to think about in the same way,” Jackson says, which allowed for a more sustained focus on academic issues, “what the faculty and students are dealing with every day.”
His experiences over his 17 years at Penn, he notes, have given him diverse perspectives on the “best forms of partnership, collaboration, and coordination that allow us to do the work we do more effectively.”
Asked about the key area of faculty recruitment and retention, Jackson says the University must focus on both rising stars and established leaders, which has become the pattern as the PIK professorship program has developed. “I think a place like Penn has to be operating on all those fronts at the same time,” he says.
As a filmmaker and a founding member of the Collective for Advancing Multimodal Research Arts (CAMRA), Jackson has an abiding interest in new forms of scholarship, which he expects to continue in the provost’s office. “One of the provost’s main jobs is to be a kind of steward for the University’s understanding of what counts as intellectual knowledge production, and how you measure the quality of that production,” he says.
Along with the question of format raised by multimodal scholarship, there are also ongoing conversations across campus about engaged scholarship and community-based research, approaches that aim to connect knowledge generation more directly with the public. “For the provost, it’s thinking about all of those fronts, and others, that really help us stay at the forefront of discussions about what forms intellectual knowledge production will take, so that we can ask and effectively answer the questions that matter most, regardless of field.”
The explosion of attention and speculation around ChatGPT has raised new questions, and highlighted existing ones, about teaching and learning, Jackson suggests. “ChatGPT is on everyone’s mind right now,” he says [see story on page 22]. Whether students are writing their own work is “one small piece of it,” he adds. More broadly, “it also begs the question of, what is our role? What are we trying to do when we bring students here, if some of the things we conventionally thought we had to develop in them may no longer be necessary? For us, the core question is always going to be: What is the reason that we prioritize certain things as researchers? And what are the things we prioritize in the classroom? What does the classroom even entail?”
The pandemic showed the potential for flipped classroom models and other educational formats, contradicting the view that “academia is a sort of slow, plodding place,” he says. “Over the last few years, it’s been moving like lightning. And so we’re trying to figure out, how do we take advantage of what we’ve learned?” In that process, he adds, it’s necessary to “recognize that part of the downside of all the volatility, all the fast and quick movement of late, are the questions we’re up against about mental health and wellness.”
With a variety of culture wars heating up, another struggle is defining higher education’s “role in these larger public debates about the nature of the body politic as it’s presently constituted, the future of democracy, the ways in which we think about differences and polarization—those questions aren’t merely academic anymore. And we’re not positioned as outside of those debates. [We need] to make sure our mission is clear, and our impact is positive, even as we recognize there are a lot of minefields out there that continue to be politicized and difficult to navigate.”
Overall, it’s essential “that we’re thinking about the needs of our students, our faculty, and our staff holistically, not in a kind of flatfooted or simplistic way,” he adds. “And that’s not easy.”
Jackson’s experience chairing the Red and Blue Committee, launched by Magill last fall, has provided another vantage point from which to examine Penn. “I think one of the most valuable parts of this process, for everyone on the committee, is that we’re able to hear from any member of the community,” he says, “about what our priorities should be, about what things we aren’t emphasizing that we should, what we need to double down on in terms of our investments.”
The committee is continuing to meet “with any groups who want to meet with us: students, faculty, staff, alumni,” he says. “We’ve gotten feedback from every single school, as well as all the other major units on campus.”
While he says it’s possible for the dean of a small school to at least entertain the notion—“maybe on a Friday afternoon”—of continuing to engage in some scholarly work, Jackson readily acknowledges that “I would be foolish to imagine I’m going to get anything else done” aside from his duties as provost. But he hopes to bring “a kind of ethnographic sensibility” to the role and “use the methodological skills I’ve developed to do research out there in the world—to listen carefully, to think about the culture of this institution, and to hopefully apply some of that effectively to asking and answering the questions that we know are important for Penn, and just supporting Liz in all the ways that I can,” he says. “This is as complicated as anything I’ve done as a scholar, and so I think that’ll keep me engaged and will be a version of trying to use some of the skills I’ve cultivated as an anthropologist, as an academician, to be a leader of the institution in ways that hopefully will be positive and effective.”
With a number of high-level personnel changes being made, “this is an institution that has a lot of real, interesting movement at the top, which means we’re not just going to be resting on our laurels,” Jackson says.
“Some of this you just get listening to Liz talk about her vision for the future. I think we’re going to be doing some bold things and trying to ask some really bold and important questions. And hopefully alumni will see and appreciate that and know that Penn is going to be out front on a lot of the most important issues.” —JP